Writer as Creator, Not Conduit

[img_assist|nid=841|title=Aimee Labrie|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=104|height=121]In the fiction workshops I lead for Philadelphia Stories, I have one rule for the writer when we’re going over his/her story; you can’t speak during your critique. This way, we avoid the writer defending or explaining himself. After the critique is finished, the writer can ask questions. Often though, he or she will blurt out something like, “But that’s how it really happened!”

It’s an important point to make. Aspiring and published writers alike are advised to write what we know. And then we do, and we’re told by our colleagues that our scene, that thing that really happened with the rodeo clown and a busload of Girl Scouts, isn’t believable or doesn’t quite work. How can the story be true and yet come across as fake?

One of the first things I remind them is that they are writing fiction, not nonfiction, where readers assume you are relating real life events.  As a writer of fiction, you are not reporting the world through the lens of an essayist or a journalist; you are creating a world where you, the writer, are responsible for making all of the choices on the page—from the title, to the first sentence, to the climactic scene, to the inevitable denouement. You decide if your story occurs on the plains of Kansas or in the Boston suburbs. If you are describing the lives of three virtual strangers or a family of twelve. If the story ends with a suicide on train tracks or a quiet and devastating betrayal between longtime partners.

Because you are in charge of shaping this story and its various parts, you may have to travel down unexplored pathways, to write scenes and characters you have not encountered in your real life. The process can be hard, but it also can be liberating. No longer does the narrative have to churn to the unhappy ending you remember. You are not just relating a tale; you are the god of it. In your fictionalized version, your heroine can come up with just the right stinging retort you only thought of a decade after the fact. You are allowed to write the world not only as you experienced it, but also as you want it to be. Above all, write your story with an eye toward how you can bring all of the elements together (whether remembered or invented) in an arresting and authentic way.  

In her essay, “The Lousy Rider,” from Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Writing, Elizabeth Gilbert describes struggling with a story that began as an amalgamation of two things from real life—her husband’s desire as a kid to learn magic, and a tale she heard about a man who believed the neighbor had stolen his cat. She took the ideas and wove them together; writing about a magician who is convinced that his cat has been snatched by the people next door. Both parts of the story were based on real life, but Gilbert couldn’t find a way to merge these two interesting concepts together. Something wasn’t ringing true—she couldn’t exactly explain why the magician was so fixated with finding this cat. And, then, she had one of those “ah-ha” moments we all hope for as writers. The magician wasn’t obsessed with a cat—it was a rabbit. She writes, “Of course it was a rabbit! It had to be a rabbit. What animal would be most treasured by a family of magicians? What is the traditional pet of magic? Not a stupid cat, but a rabbit.” After that twist of poetic license, the rest of the story fell into place.

Your first few drafts, it’s fine to write what comes easiest or is most familiar. But as you move through the revision process, you’ve got to test each part of the story as you would a fault line. It’s not enough to decide that this dialogue exchange or that character description is true to your exact experience. You have to ask yourself if it is the best decision, because, as a fiction writer, you have choices about where a story goes or doesn’t go. Your job is to make them.

Aimee LaBrie teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories. She received her MA in writing from DePaul University in 2000 and her MFA in fiction Penn State in 2003. Her collection of short stories, Wonderful Girl, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction in 2007 and was published by the University of North Texas Press. Her short story, "Ducklings" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pleiades.

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