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.