How to Succeed in Writing part IV: Steal your Way!


“Where do your ideas come from?” has to be the dumbest question a reporter/interviewer can ask an author.  If they asked the author where did your idea for this particular novel come from, that might be a question that could yield some interesting results, but if an author were to give an honest answer it might take some of the mystique away from the piece their trying to promote in the interview.  The honest answer, most assuredly, would be that these stories had humble and inconsequential origins.

The more general question is a dumb one, because no writer has a personal vault of ideas from which they draw inspiration.  They’re just making stuff up as they go along like the rest of us.  They’re no different than us, they’ve just focused their energy in one particular area for so long that some ideas popped out. I don’t know what the interviewer expects, but the answer they receive is usually vague and long.  The author usually doesn’t know anymore what to do with the question than the interviewer.

Some authors use the question to mystique their piece up a bit, but most of these mystique oriented answers are as fictional as the writer’s pieces.  Hemingway liked to tell interviewers that he traveled to exotic hotels in Paris, France to write his novels.  It could, quite possibly be true, but I’m thinking that the birth of these novels was a lot more mundane.  I’m thinking that the truth is that his novels were born in dark, dusty basements where he sat alone thinking about all of his adventures.  I’m thinking that most of his grand ideas came from the same place most authors’ ideas come from: long, laborious hours spent doing nothing but writing–only to have some little gem pop its little head out of all of the clutter that he’d written through the years.  He did, after all, say that 99% of what he’d written was wastebasket material.  The truth, that is not as mysterious as most writers want to admit, is that great writing leaks out the cracks of laborious hours spent alone, reading and writing, and crafting, editing, and editing again.  That’s how it’s happened for me, anyway, and I think if you stripped away all of the promotion and mystique writers try to add to their productions, most writers would agree, but writer Austin Kleon doesn’t agree.  He says that all ideas come from other people’s ideas, and if you’re not stealing them now, you probably should be.

Originality is dead, Long Live Creativity

Austin KleonAuthor Austin Kleon has a book out called Steal Like an Artist.  The book declares there is no way to be original anymore.  It’s all been done before, so why is everyone climbing all over themselves trying to be original?  “Get over yourself,” he says, “and this idea that you’re a creative genius, and get busy writing something good.”

Author Christopher Booker’s book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why we Write Stories states that there are only seven basic elements to stories: 1. Overcoming the monster.  2. Rags to Riches.  3. The Quest.  4. Voyage and Return.  5. Comedy.  6. Tragedy.  7. Rebirth.

The Internet Public Library lists seven different types of conflict:  1. Man vs. nature. 2. Man vs. man. 3. Man vs. the environment.  4. Man vs. machines/technology.  5. Man vs. the supernatural.  6. Man vs. self.  7. Man vs. god/religion.   Some have listed addendums to these basic plotlines and conflicts, but the gist is that all of the basic plots and conflicts that can be dreamt up have already been dreamt up hundreds of thousands of times before, dating back to Homer.  Your voice should be in great supply in your novel, of course, but you can stop driving yourself up a wall trying to be brilliantly original.   It’s almost impossible.

Austin Kleon’s method of stealing is to take single words from newspapers or Google.com and use them as idea building blocks.  He chooses a word, at random, and he blocks out the rest.  He then tries to build an idea from a series of these words to try to create an image.  The incredible and Bowieincomparable Thin White Duke, David Bowie, used this method, as did William S. Burroughs.  You can get visuals, and a more thorough explanation, of this method on Kleon’s website in the link below.{1}

Have you ever read a novel, a plotline, or a scene that you thought you could do differently?  Have you ever thought:  “I loved that scene, but I wish they would’ve done this…”  We’re not trying to do the author one better when we do this, we’re just trying to personalize a scene that touched us in some manner, and every author that we steal from should be complimented by our theft.  Their brilliance inspired thought in us after all, and if someone stole from us in this manner, we know we’d feel complimented.  While it’s not important that we avoid our influences in this manner, we should do everything we can to conceal them.  We do want to edit them out as much as possible, so that they might not even be able to spot the influence

Where do my ideas come from?  My favorite brand of fiction involves idiots doing stupid things, and in that regard, I have found that I am a font of inspiration.  My friends also provide me great material, as most of them are as stupid as I am.  We all do stupid things.  TV shows have capitalized on this.  YouTube went from being a video-sharing site to a staple in our daily life based on this principle.  Phillip Roth once considered retiring from fiction with the idea that even his creative mind couldn’t top the non-fiction out there.  We can still write great fiction though, we can steal great fiction, and lift from life.  We just need to see it when it smacks us in the face.

I’ve stolen stories from the water cooler at work, from within the walls of my humble abode, and the bar where I sat trying to escape the walls of my home and the water cooler at work.  They’re dumb stories that no one wants to read.  They’re senseless stories that no one will care about, because they’re so senseless that no one can follow them.  They’re accidental stories, that no one will want to read unless we put enough pluck and circumstance into them to make them illustrative, intelligent, and hilarious stories about human nature and life in America today.

SeinfeldThese little stories are everywhere in life, they’re the minutiae that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld opened up for the world.  Those two weren’t the first to do this, and they obviously won’t be the last, so we all need to jump on board and tell the world how stupid we are.  Stupid, little stories like “The Leans”{2} are the stories I’m talking about that we ignore in our attempt to write the next The World According to Garp.  There isn’t much to them, and they don’t necessarily feed the ego that writers have of being the next great writer, but there are times in our writing careers where we need to walk softly with our big stick.

You have to feed the female dog if you ever want her to fatten up is what I’m saying.  Creating fictional accounts of what “really” happened (my definition of creative non-fiction) taught me more about storytelling than crafting original stories did.  Crafting original stories is, of course, the goal, but if you can juggle the two you may be on your way to a behemoth.

But how many original ideas strike us in one month?  How many times do we have flurried inspiration that leads us to twenty pages of excellent fiction, and how many of these stories hit the proverbial brick wall after twenty pages?  Aspiring writers need to learn how to hone that muscle that will eventually get struck by lightning.  We need to learn how to flesh out ideas.  Is there a better way to hone that muscle than stealing another author’s idea and making our own, or fleshing out our foibles and our friends’?  If there is, I haven’t found it yet.

I’m all about getting over humps.  I’m all about writing anything and everything that is entertaining.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  When I hear someone complaining about a block that has slammed down in front of them, my first thought is why don’t you just walk around it?  It’s not like it’s the great block of China or anything that has created a border to completion.  It’s just a block, and there are hundreds of ways around it if you just settle down and look at them for what they are.

{1}http://www.austinkleon.com/2011/09/24/steal-like-an-artist-at-the-economists-human-potential-summit/

{2}https://rilaly.com/2010/01/27/the-leans/

Scentilessly


“Scentliessly,” Jeff says to me. “Scentilessly,” he says. “I did this in a scentilessly fashion.” He is pounding that word home. I can’t figure it out, and I am so confused by it that I awake. It’s a dream, but it makes so little sense to me that I awake complete with that word splashed on my brain. I can’t go back to sleep, until I make sense of it. I don’t know why I bothered trying to make sense of it. Jeff made no sense. I spoke to him for three hours that night, and nothing he said made sense. I tried to make sense of him when he spoke. I tried to find something linear that would cause Jeff to make sense, whether he liked it or not.

normal in chaosPsychologists suggest that our dream world tries to make sense of our day. “Let me sleep on it!” is more than a clever catch phrase they say, sleeping and dreaming are actually tools we use to make sense of the flood of information we encounter on any given day. I could make no sense of what Jeff was saying during the day, and when I failed to make connections in the dream world, it ejected me back into the real world in frustration.

When we were both awake, and he wasn’t invading my dreams, Jeff said that he liked to work with his hands. He said he had an agile mind. He said that when left to his own devices, he could make miracles happen, and he turned to me with a smile that attempted to punctuate the point. He didn’t say he was a misunderstood genius, but that was the import of his almost uninterrupted dialogue.

“We all are,” I would’ve said if he tried to plant that flag on me.

Jeff’s stories were as satisfying, and nutritionally valuable, as cotton candy. I was a stranger in a strange land lured in by the premise of his confusion. Everyone was polite to me in this world, but most of these people couldn’t think of anything to say to me. Most people try to come up with interesting things to say to people they don’t know, but they’re also frozen in place by the fear that they can’t. Most people can’t speak just for the sake of speaking. They often ask questions about you and feign interest while you’re speaking. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and everyone knows this, so they ask questions to help you get started. Most people aren’t so driven by the need to be interesting that they’ll talk and talk, until the listener is forced to try and find something interesting in what they say.

Jeff was eager and earnest, in a manner similar to Alan Alda. Jeff was so interested in minutiae that he bogged the brain down with it. I wondered if Alan Alda did the same thing when he wasn’t on being edited by a number of people before his words are televised.

I know that Jeff just wanted me to understand him, and he wanted me to like him, and when I did end up showing him a little interest he went off like a liquored up alkie at the end of a bar at closing time. I did understand Jeff. In many ways, I am Jeff. I think I’m complicated and loaded with potential and promise, and I want people to understand how I plan to get there. I also want them to be entertained by me, but I know how to clip my stories better. I know good stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. I know how to arc.  Jeff does not arc. He is the literary equivalent of those novels I should read. He is complicated, nuanced, and loaded with description. There is no greater understanding reached, and no culmination for the listener. He is cotton candy.

Cotton candy has all the visual allure in the world when you’re young. When a young person sees it, they have to have it. It’s big. It’s fluffy, and it sticks to people’s tongues when they laugh. No one can explain this allure sufficiently, especially when they’re young, but they’re so intoxicated by cotton candy that they will willing to suffer the ramifications of badgering their parents to have it on their tongue when they laugh. Meeting someone new has that same allure when that person is interested in interesting the listener. When he gravitates to us in a room full of strangers, we appreciate the fact that he’s singled us out to help us feel a little more comfortable than we were in a room full of strangers. That appreciation ends when we become more acclimated to the crowd around us, and we want to venture out to them, but people like Jeff don’t pick up on visual cues. They don’t even pause. His allure is gone, and you’re stuck searching for ways to finish the conversation, but like cotton candy, you can’t just throw it away after you went and badgered your parents relentlessly for it.

Jeff is a hodgepodge of quotes and anecdotes that he’s heard over the years, but he forgets that it should all mean something at the end. It doesn’t matter what it means, you think while he’s speaking, as long as it means something. There’s no personalization to his stories. He just talks. He forgets to personalize his anecdotes so that you’re more interested in him. He forgets to have a point. He forgets to have a central theme, and you forget to concentrate on the stories for which you’ve displayed interest. At one point, you’ve worked your way through the Rolodex of responses you know, and you fear that your last couple attempts at appearing interested were unsuccessful. You don’t want to appear rude, but there was some response that you gave that he smiled at. You can’t remember what that was.

My wife nods off in the middle of one of Jeff’s stories. When she nods off, her head falls. She pulls her head up quickly. She’s embarrassed. She nods down again and pulls her head up and says, “Yep!” on the second pull up. To Jeff’s mind, she’s just given him an exaggerated nod of full agreement to everything he’s just said. He has no idea he’s just put this woman to sleep. I find art in her action. I don’t think a person can perform such a reaction once, I tell her it takes skill, and all skills require practice to hone to perfection, and I consider her recovery perfection. I applaud her for this action later, when I asked her about it, but I want to know how many times she’s done it before. I want to know if she’s ever done it to me. She has no explanation for it, and she says that she’s never done it before. She says her goal was to try to avoid being rude. I cannot accept that as an answer, and I marvel at her reaction while continuing to ask her to dig deep for influence. She tires of my questions after a time, and she suggests that my line of questioning is bordering on ridicule, and she says that she finds it insulting. We move onto other subjects. 

Luther

Even in her most blatant moments, my wife has never been as rude as a man named Luther. Luther, Jeff, and I are all attendees of a funeral of one of my wife’s best friends. I meet Luther in the dining hall of a church, following that funeral. Luther is a nice guy. I ask Luther about Luther, and Luther is more than happy to tell me what makes Luther tick. He is a Colorado Buffaloes fan. I can’t remember much of what Luther said about Luther, other than the Buffaloes thing, and he said a lot. I had no problem with that though. I asked him about him, and I was curious about him. I like to know what makes people tick. We exchanged a few competitive statements about the Huskers and the Buffaloes, all kind ribbing, and I thought that was the end of our conversation. Luther wouldn’t let it end that way though. He wanted to know a little something, something about what made me tick. He was being polite, and I knew it.

The first question Luther asked me was where I was from in Nebraska. I tell him. The city I’m from has three syllables in it, and before I hit that third syllable, Luther is looking around the room to see if there is someone more interesting. It might have something to do with the idea that I bore more people than the average person, but I am keenly aware of the signs another offers when I am boring them. I can spot these signs within seconds, but I didn’t have to use these skills with Luther, for Luther made it abundantly clear, within seconds, that if anyone else expressed any interest in him, he would prefer to speak to them. 

I developed a rule for Luther, if he feels stuck speaking with a person he has no interest in, or he’s stuck speaking with a person because no one else will speak with him. I decided that Luther should require himself to feign interest for ten seconds. Ten seconds is an entirely arbitrary figure, of course, but I decided that it is enough time to avoid having the speaker believe they are not interesting. Ten seconds is enough time to leave the speaker with the belief that it is the material they chose that the listener is not interested in hearing. Ten seconds is also enough time to avoid having a more confident speaker believe that the source of discontent lies with the listener’s rudeness. 

I purposely cut my answer short and begin looking around the room in direct retaliation to Luther. Luther asks me a follow up question. I turn back to him to answer. He’s off to someone else again. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I’m done with Luther. I stop my answer short again, and he breaks into a third question. This time, I lay a trap for him. I insult my people. I insult the Huskers. He enjoys this, and he joins me. He doesn’t know I have a haymaker waiting for him on the other side of his rejoinders. I’m going to lay his people out. I have good material. It’s factual. It’s damaging. I decide I’m going to slip this shot in, I need to make it an Ali v. Liston slip shot. It’s going to be a shot he doesn’t see coming, and he won’t know what hit him. I’m going to be genuinely curious. I’m going to see if he will defend his people, the Buffaloes, after we all had such a whale of a time insulting the Huskers. I’m going to see what kind of character this Luther is. I’m going to see if Luther has character. It’s rude, of course, but he’s been playing games with me, so I’m going to try this out on him. I’m going to see if Luther has the moxie to wriggle out of my game with political finesse. We get cut off by the emcee of the event making a profound statement about why we’re all gathered here today. I’m disappointed by the interruption, but the emcee’s words take me off point.

Luther comes up to me later, when he’s decided to leave, and he is surprisingly gracious. “I was hoping we would have a chance to talk, but with so many people around … well, you know.” I say something insultingly funny about my people again, and he laughs hard. He laughs so hard and so congenially that I’m taken off point. I still want to get this guy, until he drops a rejoinder that’s quite funny. I’m shocked by this. Is Luther a good guy, and I’ve read him wrong, or is he in departure mode? 

In departure mode, those that want nothing to do with another can shore up any perceived acts of rudeness by asking the speaker to indulge any acts of rudeness, and the one in departure mode doesn’t have to pay the price of continued involvement because they are leaving. 

I politely wave away any perceived acts of rudeness with a smile, but Luther continues to stand before me for a couple of seconds, and I do not know what to do. We don’t know each other, and we have established the fact that we have little to talk about, but we get along. How do we prolong this? Is there a progression? Before I can fully digest these thoughts, Luther is politely parting. It was a quick, worried, and harried exit. His game is clear to me then. He’s not rude, and he doesn’t find me as uninteresting as I thought. He’s just worried that I’m going to figure out how uninteresting he is.

I refuse to use the word scentilessly to describe these two days of Summer, and the run-ins I had with the people that surround my people, but I do begin to see the sense and senselessness these two players brought to my bipolar understanding of humanity and myself. Jeff was so easy to figure out that he bored me, and I wanted to be anywhere but the focus of this man’s attention, and the next day I experience the exaggeration of the opposite in the form of a Luther growing bored with me before I can say two words. Am I one that others try to figure out, or do I blather? Has anyone ever seen me as such a blatherer that they wanted to escape a conversation with me, or do I cut them off and make a hurried and harried exit before they can find anything out about me? 

How to Succeed in Writing Part II: The Search for the Great Story


Being Entertaining is More Important Than Being Honest

Do you have a great story to tell? Is it good? Is it great? Do your friends find your stories mildly amusing, somewhat clever, a little sad, and really good in parts, or do they find them great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories right out of the gate, and aspiring writers are a dime a dozen. Great stories litter our libraries and bookstores. Do you have a great story to tell? Most people do. There’s nothing special about you, or your “great American” story, not yet.

“I hear you want to be a writer,” a friend of mine said. “One thing about young writers (which I was at the time) is that they have not accumulated interesting stories. I don’t mean to be insulting, but at your age you just haven’t lived enough life to have interesting stories.” After a back and forth in which he asked me to tell him one of my stories, he offered me his own. His story was “part John Grisham and part Ludlum”. The story was not as great as he thought, but the two points he made about material stuck with me.  

The first was his point that the continental divide between great writers and great storytellers is entertaining material. A writer can craft a fine tale, but if it’s not entertaining, it may not make it past the sites that adore a great story. The second point he made, perhaps incidentally, was that there’s nothing wrong with embellishing, if it makes the story better.

But you are a great writer with excellent material. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others don’t and amazement is directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you may have enough material to entertain your Aunt Clara, because she knows you and she knows the characters in your life, but you don’t have the type of material that will entertain a wider audience. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.

It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some people have natural gifts that lead them to be better at basketball and football than others. Some would say that the ability to tell a story is a gift, but I’m more inclined to believe that some people just enjoy it more, and when one enjoys something more, they work harder at it. The fascinated storyteller studies it, finesses it, and learns from those around them who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us learn how to tell a story better than others, because we want to tell a story better. We mimic those that tell stories better than us, and we correct the mistakes we see in others’ attempts.

One thing I learned, through the course of my life, was to trim the fat. I used to believe that my audience needed all of the details to appreciate a story. I then learned that all of those details harmed the most crucial element of storytelling, pace. Pace is crucial for we must treat our audience as if they have a five-year-old’s attention span. Storytellers then learn, through trial and error, that if we focus on pace too much, we leave crucial nuggets out. Achieving the hybrid involved a never-ending learning process.

Before entering into these stories we tell our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that when a room full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults gather they spend so much time obsessing over pets and children. When we’re done obsessing over our kids and pets, we share memories. It’s in these moments that a true storyteller is separated from those who struggle with  details, timing, the proper emphasis, and the number of syllables to use to  punctuate a punch line. It’s in these moments that we learn the art of presentation.

Lan 1283On the art of presentation, comedian Steve Martin once compared comedy to  music: “There is a harmony to comedy,” he said, “in that three beats are always funnier than two and four beats is a bit too much.” Only someone that gets off on telling stories, and trying to make people laugh, would focus on the minutiae of presentation so much that he focuses on beats. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve changed a word, a phrase, or a paragraph to get the rhythm right, or the beat down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve changed an infinitive in a sentence because the alternative just didn’t feel right to the harmony of a paragraph. It’s that attention to detail, that Martin alluded to, that makes storytelling an art form we all enjoy so much.

Once we gain a feel for presentation, and all of the related and inter-related minutiae, the next question is how do we come up with that material that reaches that wider audience and eventually lands you on the best-seller list? Having never achieved the best-seller list, I must admit I have only one super secret, decoder ring answer to all that: hard work. Unless you find a genie in a bottle, or steal an idea from someone else, I can think of no better way to give birth to an idea than through writing a ton of material.

Creative Writing teachers say, “write what you know”, and that is an essential activity in getting us to point A. How many of us have written those “What I did on my summer vacation” stories for our English Composition teachers? How many of those of us who wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these exercises pointless? “Get me to the meat!” we mentally scream. I want it all, and I want it now! Those exercises weren’t entirely pointless, however, they got us thinking, writing, and spring boarding to that something something we considered magic.

That springboard launched those of us that wanted it to take that pointless exercise to the idea that we could write something fantastic … if we honed that artistic muscle in our brain. If we wanted that something fantastic, we learned that the best way to springboard to it was to read some of the masters that sprang from their own springboards. If we wanted it bad enough, we learned that the best way to achieve it was to launch ourselves into more writing and reading, and even more writing and more reading, until we eventually and accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a pointless exercise required by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list that we did.

This leads us to one of the most vital questions all fiction writers must ask themselves: “Will anyone care what I write?” The immediate answer to this question is no. Unless you’re already famous, people won’t care what you think, what happened in your daily life, or if you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.

BullFrom  Ron Shelton’s script for Bull Durham:

“Your  shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs (major  leagues in baseball) with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”

Until you get famous, and those who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll be a slob, until then you’ll need to write something that someone cares about. Nobody cares that your friend has a propensity for lying, for example, unless that characteristic can be added to one of your characters to make them more colorful. Nobody cares that your aunt is ultra-sensitive, even though everything she has in life has been given to her on a silver platter, unless you can infuse that characteristic into a character in a manner that is entertaining to a greater audience. Nobody cares, unless you can translate these characteristics in such a manner that reminds us of our lying friend, or our hyper-sensitive  aunt. Or, if you can’t make this crossover, then you must make that character so damned entertaining that we won’t care when we can’t relate.

SOLZHENITSYN“The key to convincing another person of your point of view,” Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said. “Is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves.”

Convincing someone that they’ve reached your point before you do, is called manipulation in the writer’s lexicon. When most people see the word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian leader manipulating their citizens to think a certain way, but a writer can use their powers of manipulation for good, if they do it right.

How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horrific story? When a reader experiences emotions, after reading a series of words on a page, they were manipulated by the author. If a reader prefers to think of it in other terms, that is their option, but the vein remains the same. The reader was made to care about the central character in ways they considered endemic to the reader, when in all actuality it was the author’s skill to be universal that led them to that point. The author carefully crafted a visual portrait picture that trapped the reader into caring.

It’s the job of the writer to manipulate the reader into believing that they care. It’s the writer’s job to create an environment through which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief.

“If a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested. “The reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

In other words, an author could be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that their friends have ever seen, but the reader don’t know them, and the reader won’t care about the author, or their wacky takes on life, until the reader can relate to the wacky world the author is in charge of creating.

This leads us to the next question: What kind of liar are you? When you were younger did your relatives and friends constantly accuse you of fudging the truth? If that’s the case, you may be a writer. Did they question everything you said, based upon your history of exaggeration and fabrication? If they did, you may be a writer. Were you so good at lying that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, because some part of them wanted to believe your story? If that happened to you, you may be a writer. If you’re a born liar that needs some venue for channeling that inclination to exaggerate your truth to entertain those around you, welcome to the world of words. You can let your freak flag fly here, and we’ll welcome you with open arms. You can be crafty in our world. You can lie, embellish, and exaggerate to entertain. In the world of storytelling, story is sacred, as is the art of being true, even if the writer is being truer than true.

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” –Ernest Hemingway on symbolism.

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” 

When writing nonfiction, we hover over a fault line of true versus truer than true, and we should always side with true. For in most cases, nonfiction is far more entertaining than fiction. It’s a feel that the author shares with the reader, a seam that will tear with wild exaggeration. We need to be careful, in other words, to avoid some exaggerations we find entertaining, because the definition is entertainment is subjective. This is where the manipulative skill of the writer comes into play, for if the author can help the reader define subjectivity, they can both enjoy some exaggerations that prove truer than true for the purpose of entertainment.      

It takes a very steady hand, but those who have written as many stories as I have know what I’m talking about. The art of being true, without necessarily telling the truth, can be found in the art of creating creative non-fiction. If the author is true to the character, the pace, the layout, etc., a fudging of the details will be forgiven if, and I want that word italicized and emboldened, if the story is entertaining.

Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. An author might have interesting stories that have occurred in their life, and they may be worth telling, but they may not be great without some lies, exaggeration, and embellishment. And we won’t care about any of that as long as the author doesn’t swear all the details are 100% true, because we want a great story, and we want to be entertained.

This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. The young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t come up with a decent story for his first novel, so he decided to document his life in Paris, in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. How much of that book was actually based on fact is difficult to know. Was he merely documenting what took place, or was he engaged in creative non-fiction. Whatever the case was, he used it as a springboard for a career that many would say contained some of our finest novels. Hemingway would eventually reach a point where he could no longer come up with great stories, and some have suggested that this search was one of the contributing factors in his decision to take his own life. Before this tragic event occurred though, Hemingway said: “Everyone has one great story in them.  The trick is to have two.” An aspiring author can find that one great story that they have in them, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.

Human Frailties


Those that spend all their time trying to make others think they have no frailties, expose themselves as individuals that have more than any other.  Teens love to mock those with open wounds to gain favorable comparative analysis.  As we age, we learn that mocking the weak, only makes us appear weak, so we transfer that mockery to the strong.  Everyone enjoys mocking the strong.

I have one friend who is really engaged in stories when they involve other’s frailties… My frailties.  She joins in and adds little quips to the stories, and she laughs as hard as anyone.  When the subject matter turns back to her, she clams up.  She doesn’t laugh.  She doesn’t even participate in the conversation.  She’s psychologically damaged.  The compassion, in the strong, forces us to turn the subject matter back to us, where she’s laughing, and adding in her tidbits, and more comfortable.

Another friend’s stories are delusional.  The guy speaks of himself in a manner Stan Lee would consider noteworthy.  In this guy’s mind, there is a silent parade in everyone’s mind the minute he decides to walk down an aisle.  I consider it my job to provide a reaction to everyone’s story, just like I consider it everyone’s job to react to one of my stories.  After he finished one particular story, I made it a point to provide no reaction.  Doing this was prominent to both of us.  After a careful space of time elapsed I said: “It would be nice to hear a story from you in which you weren’t such an incredible person.”

This may have been a little harsh.  I don’t think it was.  I think it was appropriate to the situation, but I have to leave the perception up to you.  I realize that with raging insecurities being what they are, we find it difficult to tell stories about ourselves that reveal our failings, but it makes it so much more enjoyable for the listener to hear someone reveal themselves as a well-rounded creature.