(estimated time: 75 minutes)
“So what am I looking at here?” is my usual question when a student hands me a story to read. “Fiction or nonfiction?”
Sometimes the student gives a direct answer. Other times she’ll hem and haw before pitching the question back to me. “Well, it’s mostly nonfiction,” she might say, “with just a few things changed. So that would make it . . . ?”
That would make it fiction, my friend. Nonfiction is a bowl of water. Fiction is green food coloring. You put a single drop of it in your bowl and—presto—that water is green. Once you intentionally fictionalize a single detail in a manuscript, you’ve got fiction.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, it taps into a long literary tradition known as roman à clef (you’re on your own with the pronunciation). French for “novel with a key,” a roman à clef is semi-autobiographical work of the thinly-veiled variety: mostly true, lightly fictionalized. See: The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises, On the Road and many other books and stories.
For much of the kickstart, we have labored in the mines of our own experience, and we’ve hauled a lot of rich material to the surface. But nonfiction feedstock does not have to turn into a nonfiction manuscript. Today I’ll show you one way to transmute real experience into fiction with an exercise adapted from Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists.
First, though, I want to show you a new way to ease into your writing day. All it takes is the tiniest, easiest step you can imagine.
Prep: Set 2-3 micro-goals.
Think small. No: smaller. Ridiculously small. What is the first and easiest step you can take toward a writing session? What’s the second step you can take in that good direction? Make a short and simple list. For bonus points, post that list in the physical world where it will serve as a visual cue. (For me, that place is the refrigerator, where I won’t be able to miss it as I blearily fill up the gooseneck kettle for my morning coffee.) Here’s my list:
When my morning goes awry, it looks like this: I wander over to the couch with my phone and I promptly slide down the rabbit hole: weather, calendar (Important stuff! Stuff I need to know at the beginning of the day! Totally justifiable!) and then the news (Just until I finish this cup of coffee and the caffeine kicks in. Then I’ll write. I swear.) and then Facebook and Twitter and now my head is full of garbage and I’m cursing myself for wasting time.
But if I can just get my ass into the library chair—which is associated through habit with writing and reading—I won’t do any of that mindless shit. And once I start the timer, it’s on like Wrath of Khan. I’d be too ashamed to open up Twitter at that point.
So these two simple steps get me moving in a good direction, and, maybe more importantly, away from a rotten direction.
What tiny steps can get you moving in a good direction?
Start by browsing through your notebook. You’re looking for a memory you don’t mind messing with. The “I remembers” and the neighborhood map are fertile gardens for this exercise.
Once you find a memory you’d like to work with, change one detail. Here are a few ways to do that:
1. Add one item that could come into play: “a hammer on the kitchen counter; a toothbrush still damp in the medicine cabinet . . . [a] coffee mug on the table.” (Schneider 142)
2. Add a character. “Let the imagined character come into the narrative early in the scene, and let that coming make a difference in how it turns out at the end. But don’t decide any of that ahead of time—not even who the imagined character will be—until you get to the moment in the writing when the character appears. He or she may surprise you. If so, great!” (Schneider 143)
3. Change the course of events. Maybe there’s a moment in your memory when something terrible almost happened, but didn’t. It could happen in your story. Or if something terrible did happen in your memory, maybe your story could allow for a moment of grace. Tweak the arc, adjust the trajectory, and follow the new path.
As you start writing, other new/invented stuff might crop up. Let it come. “Frequently,” Schneider tells us, “when you commit that simple act of imagination, you open the door to the unconscious, and if you watch closely and write what you see, your unconscious mind will continue to give you . . . images.”
Two final notes before I release you to the page.
First, remember what you’ve learned so far about your own ideal way of starting a project. If “notes toward a draft” works for you, do that. If you really responded to “shitty first drafts,” then take that approach. Don’t revert to “the dangerous method,” as Peter Elbow calls it, of trying to nail the story on the first try. Instead, lower the pressure, boost the exploration and experimentation. Get in there and muck around.
Finally, Pat Schneider recommends using third-person point of view when you change the story from memory to fiction. I don’t think that’s necessary, but it can be a good way to create some distance from the real event if you feel like you need it.
Okay, that’s it. Go write.
“When you have finished, do some journal writing about how you feel about both pieces [i.e. the memory and the story] . . . What was different?” (Schneider 143) You can interpret that question—What was different?—in several ways. What changed on the surface of the story? How was the writing experience different? How do you think a reader’s experience of the two pieces might differ?