All good stories are fictional.

If reality TV were really reality, every show would be like surveillance tape. Each episode would be 24 hours of people biting their nails and wondering if they should eat a salad or a cheeseburger for lunch.

When I was completing my writing degree, I discovered a common problem for non-fiction writers: people assume fiction = lies, and therefore non-fiction = truth. Not surprisingly, many who held this assumption didn’t bother reading fiction.

Experience does not come at you in paragraphs. You cannot edit the weird or boring shit that happens to you every day. If I could, life would have far less tedious B-roll, and way more applause breaks. Therefore, the stories we call “non-fiction” aren’t “true” as opposed to the “falseness” of fiction. They’re just true in a different way…life through a different filter.

This is the great pleasure of stories: stories are life, revised. And the good ones, I think, don’t edit out the difficult stuff. They just edit out the noise, filter out the background and condense the relevant elements. You can use a non-fiction filter (memoir, essay) or a fiction-filter (realism, absurdism, satire). The important part isn’t that the story is “true.” The important part is that it is well-crafted.

Life happens. Everybody living has experiences. Stories take skillful work. As This American Life host Ira Glass said “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Which leads me to this thought: shitty writing is a lot like a shitty day. No editing. No polish. Just life lived by the surveillance camera. This happened, then this happened. Then the whole world went dark. It was finally over!

Strangely, most of the writing process (at least mine) is editing. I start with my assumptions about the story, then gradually work back toward the actual story.

Probably, I’m living my life this way. Starting with my assumptions, working toward something more actual.

How many of us never get past the first draft in our lives? People we meet, experiences we have. How many of them just get experienced, without the empathetic gesture of revision, the second and third and fourth look, when we dim down the noise of life and condense the relevant parts?

 

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