When we’re teenagers, and we start writing, we normally do so because we have one really, really important story to tell, and that is the story of ourselves. There is no other story in the whole wide world as interesting and important as the story of ourselves, and god knows if we could only tell it right we could once and for all prove ourselves the authority on all things on earth and in heaven, and quite likely alter the course of human history.
Often we persist in this notion well into our college years, although likely by that time we’ve been told that there’s a difference between fiction and memoir, so when we write fiction we change the name of our main character from our own name to a name that begins with the same letter. (I ran out of S names in college: Sandy, Samantha, Sharon…I’ve been all of them.) The beloved dog is changed to a beloved cat. The cold-hearted mother teaches French instead of Spanish. Indiana becomes Illinois.
By the time we’re grownups, we’ve mostly accepted the fact that there are other interesting people in the world. And yet, somehow, many of the fictional characters that inhabit our stories still wind up thinking and acting remarkably like us. In dialogue, all the characters talk more or less like we talk, so every conversation sounds suspiciously like us in conversation with ourselves. Our characters struggle with conflicts that are not so different from our own, and face them in ways not unlike how we would face them. Somehow, even though we know there are other worthwhile stories out there, we’re still writing our own story.
Is there anything wrong with this? The fact is, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his own story over and over, variations on a theme from Princeton to Hollywood. Sometimes he did it better than others, and when he nailed it, he nailed it. But when he didn’t quite nail it, the story in question seemed mostly like a failed version of something else he’d done better, either a warm-up or a knock-off. People drank too much, someone confused love with money, couples turned on each other, and in the end a man realized too late where he’d gone wrong.
One could argue that, if you write The Great Gatsby, who cares if you only have one story to tell? Fair point. All I’m saying is that if you’re in this for the long haul, you might want to liberate yourself from yourself. And that’s exactly what getting out of your own way, exactly what telling someone else’s story, can do. This liberation can be a gradual process. Again, even as adults, even as people who recognize the richness and depth and variety in the people who share this planet with us, even then, it can still be very difficult for a fiction writer to cut the cord to the self. It doesn’t happen all at once, and often it happens a little, and then un-happens, and then happens a little again. It’s not black and white, and it’s not like flipping a switch. It’s a conscious, deliberate act, artistic liberation. And, like all liberations, it’s at once wonderful and absolutely terrifying.
The beginning of my artistic liberation came during my senior year of college. I’d written my way through all the S names and had another story on the horizon, due in a couple weeks, and my creative writing professor pulled me aside after class and said, “I think you’re about done with this material.” And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, again, “I think you’re about done with this material. I think it’s about written out. I think you should write another story.” “About what?” I asked, naively. (I was a senior in college, remember. You would think I might have known. But I really, truly didn’t.) “About anything,” he said.
This happened almost 30 years ago, but I recall the exact spot on which I stood when this conversation took place. That’s how significant it was in my life as a writer…not to mention my life as a person. It was like my professor had just given me a Get Out of Jail Free card. I didn’t have to roll doubles or pay $50, I was just FREE, just like that. New material! About anything? Hooray! This was the wonderful part of liberation. The gates of the prison clanged shut behind me, the sun was blinding, and I had nowhere to be! But oh my god, holy shit: The gates of the prison clanged shut behind me, the sun was blinding, and I had nowhere to be! Now what the hell was I supposed to do? And where on earth would this new material come from?
Sometimes I co-teach writing workshops for elementary school students. At the beginning of the workshop my partner and I draw a giant figure on the board with huge eyes and ears and mouth and nose and hands – we call him the Poetry Monster, but you could call him the Fiction Monster, too – and we ask the kids to name the five senses, which of course they do with great confidence and exuberance. Then we say, OK, great…but there’s one more sense that the Poetry Monster has, one more tool he uses when he writes. Does anyone know what that sixth sense is? This normally stumps them at first, but then they start dancing around the answer: “The brain?” “Your thoughts?” “You’re close,” I tell them. “Let me ask you something. Do you ever sit here in this classroom and look out the window and think about what you’d be doing if you weren’t sitting in this classroom? What are you using when you’re doing that?” And now they’ve got it, of course: Imagination!
Imagination is liberation. And liberation requires imagination: an active, vivid, boundless, shameless, imagination.
Of course we all possess it – we all use it when we look out a window, thinking of what we’d rather be doing – but we’re not working it very hard when we do that, certainly not stretching it. Imagination is a tool. And like any tool, it grows dusty and dull without frequent use. By the time my college professor gave me my Get Out of Jail Free card, my imagination was in pretty sorry shape. Let me be clear: I’d gotten quite good at imagining myself in a variety of situations. What I lacked, completely, was the ability to imagine other people – their inner lives (and not as they related to me!), their backstories (again – independent from me!), their hopes, dreams, fears, joys, desires, and vulnerabilities. Their baggage, minus MY baggage. Yes, indeed, my imagination was like a giant airport baggage carousel, but almost all the bags on it were mine, and the few that weren’t mine were touching mine, bumping up against mine, somebody else’s tiny wheely bag squeezed between my two giant suitcases, so it hardly counted. I had to correct that balance. I had to replace my bags with the bags of others. Was this possible?
In a word: NO.
When you write fiction, whatever kind of fiction you write, some of your bags are going to stay on that carousel. You simply can’t take them all off. Some of them, you can, and should, get rid of. But others are impossible to remove. Why?
Because they weigh 1 million pounds.
The liberation that is crucial to a fiction writer, then, is the ability to weave together experience and imagination in service of character.
I’m going to switch similes now.
If you’re like me, and you are, your stored experience is like a house on Extreme Hoarders. Now – this is important – when I say “experience” here, I’m not just talking about things that you’ve done or things that have happened to you. I’m not talking about your baggage. Your baggage is in the house, yes, but that’s not all that’s in the house. Your baggage, in fact, is just a small fraction of what’s in the house. Your stored experience, your Extreme Hoarders house, includes everything you’ve ever seen and everything you’ve ever heard, and this includes literally everything that literally anyone has ever told you about literally anything. It includes every book you’ve ever read and every movie you’ve ever seen, every news broadcast, every sporting event, every single episode of Friends, and every word of the Gilligan’s Island theme song (both versions!). It includes every gesture you’ve ever seen a stranger make, every snippet of conversation you’ve ever overheard, every smile, every hand, every hat, every out of tune piano, every cheerful hound dog, every bowl of lukewarm soup. You can see why there is no place to sit down in your Extreme Hoarders house, why food is spilling from the fridge, why you might break your neck trying to negotiate the stairs. It’s everything. And I mean everything.
And all of it, every bit of it, is your material. So when you start a story, or a novel, that house is where you go to find your character. Your character who is not you. Your character who is not anyone, until you make him someone.
You build your character from the contents of your Extreme Hoarders house. You are Dr. Frankenstein in your Extreme Hoarders house, and your problem, Dr. Frankenstein, is not that you don’t have enough material to make your monster. Oh no, on the contrary. Your problem, Dr. Frankenstein, is that you have way too much material to make your monster. Thus it will require – you guessed it! – your imagination to choose the right pieces and put them together in just the right way. There is practically an infinite number of combinations in your Extreme Hoarder house, quite literally millions of characters that can be built by the contents of a single room. That’s how much crap you’re storing. And it’s all there waiting for you. Again, you just have to figure out what the hell to do with it.
But here’s the best news of all. Honestly, this is the greatest news you will hear all day.
Sometimes, the work does itself.
Oh my god, it’s the dream, right? The dishes wash themselves, the papers grade themselves! The dream! And sometimes, a monster walks out of your Extreme Hoarders house fully formed, ready to walk right into your story, and you feel like you didn’t do anything to make it happen.
But of course you did. You just didn’t know you were doing it. Your imagination has seemingly acted of its own accord, because you have trained it to do so.
And how do you train your imagination? How do you get it in shape? How do you make your Extreme Hoarders house fertile ground for hatching a character?
First, this: You start spending a lot of time in there. Sometimes, when you go in, you already have a situation in mind, a rough idea of plot that you’re seeking characters to plug into – this is often how I write. But other times you have nothing; you’re starting from scratch. So you go there every day, several times a day. Instead of checking Facebook, you sit some place quiet, maybe close your eyes, and you knock around your Extreme Hoarders house for 15 minutes. You familiarize yourself with its contents. You go into the rooms that are the most unmanageable. You dig through the top layer of stuff. Find what you’ve forgotten. Toss aside the things that are the most familiar. You look at something you haven’t looked at in five years, because it’s a new thing now, because you’re a new you now. When you saw that woman crying in the Kmart five years ago, you were struck by it, but you didn’t understand it. Do you understand it now? Maybe you do. Maybe it makes a little more sense. So start with her.
You don’t know anything about her, not a damn thing except that she was crying in the small appliance aisle at the Kmart. But look around your house, look at all the possibilities. Look at how your uncle sat hunched over the silver tray of his Banquet TV dinner. Maybe that woman’s father has the same hunch. Maybe when she walks into the apartment and sees his hunched back, she wishes he would die. Or maybe, because you just stumbled across this thing someone told you once, maybe she’s afraid her father’s going to move in with that woman he loved in high school, even though they just met again last week for the first time in almost 50 years. And part of her thinks it’s great, sure, in a way, even though for seven years it’s just been her and her dad, doing the daily Sudoku and eating salami and Triscuits for lunch, and she’s gone to Kmart to buy her father and his high school girlfriend a housewarming present. You know what housewarming present? That stupid bread-making machine that your next door neighbor got for Christmas last year and then put out on the curb marked FREE when there was still snow on the ground.
And now you’re running to the page. You can’t get there fast enough. You’re tripping over your own feet. Oh my god, yes, you’re turning on the computer, demanding a new document. You’re ready to go; you have your character; the story’s bursting out of you.
But I’m going to tell you to stop. I’m sorry. I’m going to tell you to stop, because I don’t think you know enough yet. Because I don’t think your crying woman is a character yet. And my fear is that if you go to the page now, if you start writing her before she really exists, the crying woman, on page 2, may wind up being you. Your Frankenstein monster only has one arm, a foot, and half an ear. It can’t walk out of the house yet. You want that monster to walk out of the house fully formed, you better let it spend a little more time constructing itself. Otherwise you will fill in the empty spaces with yourself, because that is the path of least resistance. Be strong. Be patient. Do not go to the page.
I don’t want you to write the crying woman’s story until you know her well enough to get out of your own way. Give her time. Tomorrow, go back to your Extreme Hoarders house. Because you’ve been hanging around in the house a lot, the crying woman might have done some work in your absence, might have picked up a few habits from your college roommate or developed your sister’s fear of the ocean. Dig around some more, hit another room. Discover more about her. Build her backstory with the materials at your disposal. Maybe something you initially thought about her was wrong. That’s OK. That’s good, in fact. Your imagination is at work. Creation is not instantaneous; it is thoughtful, and deliberate. Do not rush. You’ve got time. Put back a piece of her and pick up a different piece to try out. Be strong. Be patient. Do not go to the page.
At this point some people might want to do a character exercise. They might want to get some words down on a page. I understand the temptation, but I think what you really need is to just spend some more time with this woman. I think you just need to go about your day with her in your head, popping in on her while you’re driving, or showering, or making dinner, or falling asleep. You need to think about her until she seems as real as someone in your real life, until you forget that she isn’t. You need to think about her until you wonder what she’s up to when you’re not thinking about her.
And then, after a few weeks, maybe several weeks, when you go to the page, and you open the front door of your Extreme Hoarders house, she will be ready to walk out.
So are you done? Of course not. Because now you actually have to get the story down on the page, and thus there are still many opportunities for you to screw everything up for that monster you’ve created. I think the No. 1 worst thing you can do to yourself as you’re composing a story is to start workshopping the story as you’re writing it. This is a terrible habit, but we’ve all done it, especially if we’ve been in a lot of creative writing workshops.
Your character, your monster, should make this process easier, if indeed you’ve given her enough time to form, and then marinate, in your Extreme Hoarders house. If she can walk out of that house under her own power, then she’s the boss of your story, and you should let her do what she wants to do, and you should not question it. Again – if you’ve done the appropriate prep work, if you’ve stayed away from the page long enough for her to be fully developed from page one – the hardest work of the story has already been done. Still, you will be tempted to intervene, to not trust your characters, to not have faith in the imaginative work that you’ve already completed. You will be Dr. Frankenstein running after the monster, asking “Are you sure you want to do that?”
Believe me, the monster is sure. You should know. You made him.
Furthermore, a terrible thing to ask yourself, at any point in the first draft of a story, is this:
“What am I trying to say with this story?”
If you hear yourself think this, or any version of it, I ask you please to put the story away for one week and spend some more quality time with your character, because if you’re asking yourself this question then you are apparently still thinking that you are in charge of your story. I’m telling you, the last thing you need to be thinking about, seriously, the last thing, as the story is unfolding itself for the very first time, as the child you’ve done all this hard work conceiving and gestating is actually being born on the page, is what you – the author – are trying to say. Who cares what you’re trying to say! Just tell the damn story. There will be plenty of time for thinking later.
I also discourage you from asking any other kind of workshoppy question, even if in workshop these questions are completely justified. Again, I’m talking about while writing the first draft. Just let the first draft come. Let the character take the wheel. You are not driving this car. When you get to later drafts, when you get down to sentence work, you get the car back. But for now, for this first draft, your monster is in charge.
E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your own headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I tried to remember this when I wrote the first draft of my new novel. Because my characters were driving, not only was it nighttime, and thick with fog, but both my headlights were shattered and the characters kept screaming and trying to wrestle the steering wheel from each other. I sat in the passenger seat, terrified. The windows were down and my hair was blowing all over the place. My heart was pounding. I had no idea where we were going.
I had never felt so free.
Susan Perabo’s new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, was released in March from Simon & Schuster. She is also the author of two collections of short stories. She is a professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
Want more writing articles like this one?
Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.
Looking for an agent?
Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.