Just Open A Vein And Bleed

I often quote my graduate school fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, who had a keen sense of the process by which stories get told.  One of the things Barry said that has stuck with me through my writing career: “What we do when we write fiction is fracture reality and put it back together as truth.”

Barry said that if you walk around all day with a recorder and capture everything that was said in your presence, what you get is mostly mundane and un-memorable.  But somewhere on that recording there is a little nugget of truth, something said that raises it above the trivial and goes to the heart of what it meant to be human that day.  A nugget of truth, that’s the thing.  For a writer, it’s the raw material of storytelling.

There is much about all our lives that is mundane and un-memorable.  But in every single life there are nuggets of truth that make up our essentials – the twists and turns of our existence, our joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, our most basic beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.  We are fascinating, intriguing, complex creatures, capable of all sorts of acts and ideas, much of which borders on the impossible.  As a writer, if I can’t find something sublime in all that stew of human existence to tell a story about – well, I should check to see if I still have a pulse.

For all of us – writers or not – our reality is made up of millions of pieces of humanity, and the older we are, the more millions there are.  We are the sum of everything we’ve done, every person we’ve met, every place we’ve been, everything we’ve read and heard, every thought we’ve had.  We are, in short, the sum of ourselves.  As writers, we use every shred of it we can get our hands on.  We create out of ourselves, and in that sense, everything we write is autobiographical. 

It can be a painful process.  When we write, whether we like it or not, we reveal ourselves.  There are parts of us in every character we imagine, warts and all.  I think that can be especially daunting for young writers just starting out.  When I visit with a group of high schoolers, listen to them talk about their work, read what they’ve shared on the page, I remember what it was like for me at that period when I was half-formed, vulnerable, wondering if what was going through my hormone-drenched body and mind was impossibly weird.  To reveal oneself through writing at any stage is an act of courage.  For the young, it’s especially so.

But it’s worth doing.  For writing to be worthwhile, it has to be honest.  And to be honest, it has to be worth the pain.  The great sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed."  Red Smith’s writing was honest and elegant, and only he truly knew how much it was wrenched from his gut.  Because it was, I’m sure he found the result profoundly satisfying.  For a writer, that’s just about the best payoff imaginable.

The World of "What If?"

Okay, I confess it: I lie for a living.

I make stuff up and write it down on paper and talk people into publishing and performing it.  When I write the stuff, it’s very real to me.  I see people moving about, hear what they say, even know what’s inside their minds and hearts and souls.  But it all takes place in a made-up world.  It’s all fiction.

But then, it’s not.  That fictional world I’ve imagined has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is me.  It begins in my version of reality – the sum of all the things I know.  It’s where imagination begins. 

Here’s an example:

When I finished college in 1965 I went to work as a TV news reporter in Montgomery, Alabama.  My beat was the state capitol, where George Wallace was the governor.  Wallace had run for President in 1964 and made some waves, winning a couple of Democratic primaries and causing a lot of heartburn for the party regulars.  He planned to run again in 1968, this time as a third-party candidate.  He had a strong power base in Alabama – a source of money, political talent, influence – but that would evaporate when his term as governor ended in 1966.  Wallace asked the legislature to change the state constitution to allow him to serve a second term, but they refused.  So George convinced his wife, Lurleen, to run in his stead.

It was understood from the beginning that Lurleen would simply be a stand-in for George, that he and his cronies would continue to hold the reins of power, make the decisions, chart the course.  Alabama’s voters had no problem with that, and given George’s enormous popularity, they had no problem with giving Lurleen an overwhelming victory.  She served gracefully but mostly benignly until she died of cancer less than two years into her term.

I tucked away the George and Lurleen Wallace story in my memory bank and went on to other pursuits – among them, fiction writing.  And then many years later, their story came bubbling back up.  A woman governor of a southern state whose husband is running for President.

But then came the point where the story became a work of fiction.  That’s when I asked, “What if?”

What if the story is set in the modern day: a presidential aspirant helps his wife get elected governor and intends (a la George Wallace) for her to be a benign stand-in.  But instead, she’s smart, feisty, independent, determined to chart her own course?  What if she has a political bloodline of her own, and with it, solid instincts.  And what if she finds allies who can help her navigate the treacherous shoals of male-dominated, good-old-boy politics?

So with that “What if?” a new story is born, eventually becoming a novel, The Governor’s Lady.

There’s a line in a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”  And that’s what a story is, a contradiction.  It’s real stuff, made-up.  It has to be grounded enough in reality to be authentic and believable to a reader, a solid point from which the reader is willing to take a leap of faith into the imagined world.  That imagined world is what transforms the reality into something new, and that world begins when the fiction writer asks, “What if?”

So yeah, I lie for a living.  But every good lie has to have a grain of truth in it.

Think about all that, and so will I, and I’ll have some more to say about it in my next post.