The Mark Blog

Truth in Fiction

I've discovered that it's often difficult for me to describe a work-in-progress in any way that satisfies me.

I've heard that it takes an hour to write an hour-long speech, two hours to write a two-hour speech, and three hours to write a ten-minute speech. One has to really know what one wants to say in order to make it concise.

For a very long time, I have struggled with how to articulate what my novel-in-progress is about. As part of the Mark Program, we've been asked to write and revise log lines and brief synopses of our manuscripts. (Natali and Eric are writing story collections, and I'm writing a novel.) In large part because of the Mark, I have a much surer sense of how to articulate what my novel is about, in terms of both plot and thematic concerns.

Oftentimes, I struggle to answer the related question of where my novel-in-progress comes from. How much is true--born of real life--and how much is fabricated? I like the response of my former teacher, Pam Houston, who says that everything she writes--regardless of its classification as either fiction or non-fiction--ends up containing about 82% truth. In another variation, Mark instructor Antoine Wilson likens life to a lemon and the fiction that emerges from it to the zest. I've been extending the food metaphor: If life is a cookie, then stories are the chocolate chips. You nibble out the bits of life that catch your breath--the distinctive emotional truths--and they, I believe, are what make a work of fiction.

I don't know where I'm coming in with my truth percentage but I do know that, through every hour that I sit with manuscript, I am discovering with greater intimacy what my novel is about. I am learning the rhythms of my character Lillian's heart, I am learning about the overarching obsessions of the manuscript and, this weekend, I also, perhaps not by chance, ate many chocolate chip cookies.