The U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2010, there were 145,900 writers and authors in America, and that the median income was $55,420 per year, or almost $27 per hour. The bureau predicted that in the next decade 9,500 new writers and authors will be added to the list.
Just 9,500? From the tsunami of books and eBooks published recently, my guess is we’re adding 9,500 new authors per month, and the median income from that is probably closer to $400 per author a year.
Starting this piece with statistics shows you where my head is these days. The daily marketing that’s required in being a published author yanks me into the left side of my brain probably far too often. However, it’s the right side, the creative side, where I push to be. It’s where many authors find the most reward.
Being “creative,” though, doesn’t mean being effective. “Effective” is about having readers embrace your work, finding much truth and passion. This whole notion of being effective is probably left-sided, too, but two questions have been on my mind about the truth of fiction. These questions have led me to see what I do more clearly as I’m rewriting my fourth novel.
The first question is why do people read and write fiction? In a recent New York Times essay on this very question comes the idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” We don’t like to be alone? True, but is that really it? Other answers include “Fiction delights” and “It instructs.”
My favorite answer, though, comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Our everyday lives are simply chaotic and bring a lot of noise. The best books, movies, and plays are condensed experiences that let me peer through the haze and see life, which at times feels deeply absurd. That’s probably why I like Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction so much.
Another touchstone for me is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The book is broken up into stories. Most seem to be true first-person stories of fighting in the Vietnam War. After all, O’Brien had been a grunt in Vietnam, and each piece he writes is so vivid, they have to be exactly the way it was. Then there’s the notice the title page: “A work of fiction.”
Fiction? It’s all so real. You realize that the author both loved and hated his tour and that being a soldier had so many conflicting and contradictory states of being that what you are reading rises above the usual prose. It is life. Yet about two-thirds of the way through the book, O’Brien writes, “I’m forty-three years old, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked though Quang Ngai Province as a foot solder. Almost everything else is invented.” He goes onto explain how fiction, through hyperbole and making things up, allows readers to feel the truth of what he’d felt. “Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth,” he says.
The way I’d been writing my short stories matched this idea. If I’d been at a life-changing event with five friends, I could reduce it to two friends with different names and be clearer. While I’d call it fiction, its basic essence would be deeply honest.
“Honest,” by the way, is what Richard, a high school friend that I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, told me at a recent dinner. Richard had just finished reading my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century and said, “Your writing is just so honest, I think I’d feel too vulnerable if I wrote that way.” Such vulnerability is what I finally accepted as a writer. To get to truth, you have to be open and exposed.
Many top creative people have a similar struggle. Painters, performers, playwrights, dancers, designers and more push toward their sense of genuineness by taking risks. I just watched the documentary It Might Get Loud, which focuses on three generations of master rock guitarists. Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2, and Jack White of the White Stripes, get behind what drives them. Each in his own way was fed up with “the usual.”
For The Edge, the weekly bombings and death in Ireland while he was growing up affected him, and one particular senseless incident pushed him beyond just playing and drove him to write “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” For him, music is about “total commitment—getting across what you want to say in a straightforward way as possible.”
For Jimmy Page, who helped write “Stairway to Heaven,” he finds “passion, honesty, and competence is musical heaven.” For Jack White, it’s not the perfection of the instrument but the basic truth inside a song that counts. He aims at the simplicity of blues master Son House. Says White of a House song, “It didn’t matter if he was clapping off time. It didn’t matter there were no instruments being played. All that mattered was the attitude of the song.”
Attitude is something difficult to teach. Besides writing fiction, I also teach creative writing, constantly looking for ways to inspire my students. That takes me to my second question, “How do I teach ‘honest fiction’?” My own first stories did not quite work. My intentions and people’s reactions did not match. The feedback, however, from friends and classes helped. I’d go back and rewrite—and rewrite some more. It’s where I learned to simplify and exaggerate points to reach the level of what I felt.
That’s one approach to being honest: writing and rewriting with a focus on staying true to your feelings. Yet in some stories I’d think, “What if my mother reads this? I can’t write it. I can’t show her.”
Some of my beginning writing students are driven to write about a true event but keep anything embarrassing at bay by writing in generalizations—offering few images, no realizations, and cryptic dialogue. They’re writing in code about something that’s important to them. Their stories, though, have layers of gauze around them. When I and other class members read such pieces, we don’t fully grasp what’s happening.
So how do you do write well and honestly? As Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Now I’m wrestling with my latest challenge, my work-in-progress. Where my first short stories and novels connected to events in my life, I’d run out of big events. What to write? I’m pushing myself to create a story that in no way happened to me—but I can picture being in similar situation.
Even if you’re writing stories that don’t reflect a real event in your life, you still need to find connections. Dialogue may be things you’d heard or said—or might say in such a situation. Maybe your connection is thematic. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are often wild—certainly not what a young Southern woman of grace would be involved in, yet she saw her stories as metaphorical, leading to truth.
She said, “The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode.” She added, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” She wrote about faith without being didactic.
That’s another truth I’ve found in writing. Don’t be preachy. Be curious. Create scenes whose issues have two sides. People don’t need truth rammed down their throats. Besides, you as the writer might find truths in other points of view.
Stay nimble. Don't worry about making $27 an hour. And when you edit your own work, do what Hemingway suggested: use your bullshit detector.
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