My fiction teacher in graduate school was the late novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah, who told his students in general right off the bat, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can encourage your writing.”
To me in particular he said, “When you learn the big tricks, you’ll be okay.”
“What are the big tricks?” I asked.
“You’ll figure them out as you go,” he said with a smile.
I think, after a good number of years of making up stuff and putting it on paper, I’ve figured out at least a couple of the big tricks:
Be honest with your characters;
Trust your readers.
Since all stories are about people, the way to make stories authentic is to tell about authentic people, and that means presenting them warts and all. We human beings are a fascinating stew of good and evil, joy and sorrow, light and dark. Even the best of us have some secrets of the soul we’d rather nobody else know about. And even the nastiest, smelliest of us have some tiny redeeming quality. Since the great privilege of the fiction writer is to plumb the depths of characters’ souls, what we find down there – the dark as well as the light – is what makes them real. Sometimes my characters infuriate me; sometimes they embarrass me. But always, they fascinate me with their spirit, their energy, their insistence on being human in every way. My job is to be honest with them. So if you read one of my stories and find characters who seem authentic, I’ve succeeded.
Then that other big trick, trusting the reader – first, to be able to deal with authentic characters honestly presented. My characters may occasionally infuriate and embarrass you, as they do me, but I believe you can handle that. I trust that you will find something in them, in their honest presentation, that rings true and possibly resonates in your own life, or the lives of people you know.
Then too, I have to trust that you will bring your own imagination to the work. I don’t have to tell you everything, and in fact, the more I try to tell you, the more I get in the way of the story and the characters. I need to tell you just enough to get your imagination engaged, and you will fill in the blanks and make the story much more than what I could offer. It will become your story, and the characters will become your people.
My good friend Ralph Keyes, a wonderful writer and a wise and perceptive man, has written a book called The Courage To Write. Every person who writes, or wants to write, should read it. Ralph talks, in part, about this business of being honest. I don’t know if Barry Hannah ever read Ralph’s book, but part of what he encouraged in my writing was this business of honesty. It was the best thing he did for me.
By the way, Barry encouraged some pretty darn good writers in his many years of teaching, including Mark Childress and Donna Tartt. He was generous and nurturing, and he knew what he was talking about. In a way, Barry’s at our elbows every time we sit down to write.
In my next post, some thoughts about the writer’s imperative to be honest with himself. Warts and all. Stay tuned.