But it’s True!

‘You couldn’t make it up’ is an overused phrase in these days of TV reality-show politics. But we writers make everything up. Don’t we?

Well… yes and no. Of course stories come from real life: an overheard conversation, an image, a sentence on a page sparks an idea which has weight – that chimes with what I know to be true. Then the process of turning it into something else begins: of pushing and prodding and waiting it out, until it grows to inhabit its own world.

A while ago I was struggling with an idea that refused to grow. For a long time I couldn’t understand why. It had the right ingredients: an intriguing setting; risk; conflict. Historical detail. Characters who had everything to lose; and little in common. The added benefit was that I knew the setting well – I’d lived there, and witnessed the events I was writing about.

After many attempts I managed to get the shape of a story on the page. I carefully set the scene: from the weather to the politics, food and local transport. It was all important. Then there was the history, to put it all in context. No one would understand it unless I included that. The story grew and grew, until I recreated the scene I remembered.

I proudly showed it to a writer friend. Back came her response: cut the details. Less is more. Trust the reader to understand – to fill in the gaps. Advice I’m happy to dish out when I’m reading other writers’ work.

I wanted to say, But I was there! It was just like that! And I realised – that was the problem. She was right. The fact that it was true didn’t make it relevant – or mean it worked as a piece of fiction.

I was thinking about this when I read Margaret Wilkinson’s analysis of Deborah Levy’s short stories in the latest Mslexia (www.mslexia.co.uk ‘Short Story Heroes’, Dec/Jan/Feb 2017, p69). Wilkinson writes that ‘almost everything in Levy’s stories, however inconsequential, may become consequential’. For Wilkinson, Levy’s stories are enriched by ‘a whisper of journal keeping’. Details ‘become meaningful because they have been isolated and written down’.

The problem with the real-life event of my story was that I was trying to lift the whole thing, instead of starting with a spark and waiting to see how it developed. I went back to the text and cut, looking for details that would bring the scene alive for the reader. The story had to be shaped, pulled about – the background seeded in: all the things I would do with an imaginary setting.

Something else was getting in the way. Who was telling it – me, or my characters? They weren’t doing what I wanted them to do because that didn’t work in the story. It really happened. But maybe not like that? Maybe like this?

At last a story began to appear. Just a pinch of ‘real life’ was enough. Too much and the mixture became clotted and indigestible.

The story is still work in progress, but I’m learning to take a back seat. To let readers inhabit the space, and bring their own understanding to it. I don’t have to get in the way, tugging their sleeves, saying: Believe me! I was there. That’s how it was.


2 thoughts on “But it’s True!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s