Recently, I received two phone calls that made me think about the kind of fiction I tend to write. One was from a man who told me he had just read a story of mine called “Rainier,” which is about a divorced alcoholic whose son dies in a car accident. “The same thing happened to me,” the caller said, then proceeded to tell me about the anguish he suffered after the death of his son and how AA had helped him overcome not only his alcoholism but his grief. He did not cry, but I could tell he was fighting tears. When he finished telling me his story, he paused, then said, “I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone.”
I couldn’t tell him that he, at least at that moment, was alone. My story is not autobiographical. I have never lived in Montana or Wyoming, where the story takes place; I am not now, nor have I ever been, divorced; I am not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise; and my son, I’m happy to say, is very much alive. Nothing in that story happened to me, or to anyone I know. I made it up. I didn’t have the heart to tell the caller this, however; for the duration of the phone call, I pretended that the story was true, and that I shared his grief not only imaginatively but literally.
The other phone call was from a Vietnam vet who had read my short story “Freeze,” which is about a soldier in Vietnam who steps on a mine that doesn’t explode yet nonetheless has devastating effects on his life. The caller wanted to know if we’d ever met. “I remember that guy you wrote about,” he said. “The lieutenant. And I think we must have been at Lai Khe at about the same time. Did you know Larry Kelvin? Or Rick Hammond?” When I told him I’d never been in Vietnam, or even in the military, he was more than disappointed, he was outraged. “What gives you the right to write about a war when you weren’t even fucking there?” he demanded. Clearly, he felt as if he’d been taken in by a con man. And in a way, he had, for what is a fiction writer if not a confidence artist, someone who trades words for your trust, and—if he’s lucky—your money? And how can writers blame their readers for failing to recognize that fiction is fiction, not truth, when we do everything we can to make them believe something we imagined is true? Still, I wish he had realized that writers, like magicians, work in the realm of illusion, not reality. He would never assume that the magician actually sawed the lady in half, yet he was quick to assume that the soldiers I killed had bled real blood.
I didn’t get a chance to defend myself to this caller—he hung up almost immediately after accusing me of the crime of lying in a work of fiction—but if I had, I would have told him that “Freeze,” like “Rainier” and the rest of my stories, is a true story, but not true in the way he wanted. Its truth is not the kind that can be captured by a surveillance camera but the kind that appears in our dreams, a truth heightened by distortion and the odd juxtaposition of a lifetime’s accumulation of images. Like a dream, a story, if it’s any good, tells the truth about the author’s secret, inner life, and as often as not it does so by telling lies about her public, outer life, for, as Oscar Wilde said, “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.” And about the nature of that truth the reader sometimes knows more than the author.
Perhaps the most repeated advice in the history of creative writing workshops is “Write what you know.” For writers who have a talent for negotiating between the demands of facts and the demands of the imagination, this may be valid advice. But for most of us, I believe, writing what we know can only result in nonfiction, whether thickly or thinly disguised. This is why Graham Greene suggested that a good memory was incompatible with good fiction writing. “All good novelists have bad memories,” he said. As Robert Olen Butler explains, “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.”
Knowing also creates aesthetic problems that imagining doesn’t. As Garrett Hongo has said, “Sometimes, in writing about ‘what you know,’ … autobiography gets in the way. If you write ‘Grandfather’s backyard,’ you may see his amazing collection of hybrid lilies, but the reader won’t unless you put them into the poem. It’s easier to describe something that you’ve invented than something that’s so deeply familiar you take it for granted.” Furthermore, writing about what you already know can be a prescription for boring yourself—and if you bore yourself, you’ll bore your reader. For my money, Grace Paley got it exactly right when she said, “You write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.” You can’t avoid what you know—it’s who you are, after all—but if you’re trying to write into what you don’t know, you’ll discover things about yourself that you didn’t know. In short, you’ll discover your secret life, and so will your readers.
All literature, I believe, is predicated on the desire to reveal the author’s essential, secret self, to be known by others. This is most obviously true of the work of writers like Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Lowell, whose strategy, and sometimes subject, is candor. Yet there are many writers—including some of our greatest—who reveal their essential selves by eschewing candor and adopting the strategy of disguise. Both candor and disguise are valid—even indispensable—ways of approaching the secret life in literature, and both can result in great art, though I believe disguise improves your chances, because the less you rely on autobiographical fact, the more your imagination is of necessity invoked. For the last several decades, however, the dominant approach in American literature has been candor. Our literature has become more overtly factual in its pursuit of the inner life than at any previous point in literary history. Since so many writers believe that the subject of fiction and poetry is and should be their factual experience—“what they know”—it’s no wonder so many readers assume the same thing.
In my stories, and in my poems, I have tried to write my way into many characters whose lives I know nothing, or next to nothing, about. On paper, I have been—or at least tried to be—a nun, a serial killer, a bag lady, a nine-year-old boy, a ninety-nine-year-old man, a woman afflicted with hysterical blindness, a teenager who witnesses his father’s nervous breakdown, a man with an artificial hand, a divorcée, a girl from Bangladesh, a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic, a Hmong refugee, a sixteenth-century Spanish priest, a nineteenth-century Russian dwarf, the biblical Lazarus, and various other characters, including several actual jazz musicians and authors. One of those authors—Gustave Flaubert—wrote a letter to Louise Colet about the pleasure of writing about lives other than his own. Of his day’s work on Madame Bovary, he wrote:
It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly—to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, man and woman, lover and beloved, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people spoke, even the red sun that made them half-shut their love-drowned eyes. Is this pride or piety? Is it a silly overflow of exaggerated self-satisfaction, or is it really a vague and noble religious instinct?
It may be evidence of my own pride, but I’ll opt for piety as the correct answer. I believe that escaping the self, imagining the life of another, is a noble, even religious, act. But I also believe that we learn as much or more about Flaubert’s true self through the people he invents than we would through any overt autobiographical account, for imagining the other is ultimately a way of discovering the self. Flaubert clearly knew this, for when he was asked how he was able to create such a convincing female character, he answered, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” And Jorge Luis Borges understood this, too, as his summary of the life of an artist indicates:
A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.
I cannot see my own face yet, but I trust that I am drawing it, if badly, each time I sit down and attempt to enter another person’s central nervous system. And that’s the face I want my readers to see, my true face, not the false ones I wear in order to reveal it.
But what will they see if they see my true face? Their own faces, I believe. As Charles Simic has said, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we recognize ourselves.” The same goes, of course, for stories.
Here’s the paradox: Just as you reveal your secret life when you imagine others’, you reveal others’ secret lives when you reveal your own. As Donald Hall once remarked, literature “starts by being personal but the deeper we go inside the more we become everybody.”
Everybody, c’est moi. And c’est vous.
Find more ways to rethink conventional wisdom about the craft of fiction writing. Check out Alone With All That Could Happen!