We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. –Pablo Picasso
One of the joys of writing my six psychological thrillers, featuring forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger was when my editor would say, “I don’t know if Frank would do that. Is that really an authentic way he would act?”
Of course, Clevenger wasn’t real. He was my fictional creation—the lead character in Denial, Projection, Compulsion, Psychopath, Murder Suicide and The Architect. Yet, I had built Clevenger a core persona. Sure, he was addicted to drugs. Yes, he was addicted to sex. But he never failed to come through when the truth was at stake. He was a broken man, who was, nonetheless, tireless in solving mysteries, whether they be murder mysteries or the more personal psychological mysteries of the other characters that populated my novels.
My editor once shared Raymond Chandler’s description of the perfect detective with me and suggested it applied to Clevenger:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
The wonder of writing fiction is creating truths within it. Those truths may be inherent in the characters one creates, or the storyline they populate, or in both. So I always advise writers to know their main character, inside and out. What would he or she do in this situation or that situation? What would he or she feel in this situation or that one?
It is impossible to create such a character without knowing oneself pretty well. Otherwise, the same avoidance of core beliefs and emotions that afflict the writer in his or her own life will afflict the main character in that writer’s work.
One of my favorite authors is the late and great Harry Crews, a great novelist who hadn’t sold a single book until he stopped trying to hide who he really was. Here’s the way he wrote about what happened when he finally stopped faking:
I was sitting in a tiny room at the typewriter trying not to wake up my eight-year old Son. Beside me in boxes were manuscripts. All rejected. Rejected because they were no good. I’d written five novels and hundreds and hundreds of short stories. I’d written ten years, and not a word had seen print . . . I was a writer. A fiction writer. And a goddamn good one. It was in me somewhere, but something had gone horribly wrong . . . I turned and looked at all that worthless work stacked against the wall. Why was it all so goddamn bad? Because by then I knew the work I had done, and was doing, was no good. I had worked just hard enough and had learned just enough to know that I wasn’t neglected or overlooked by several thousand dumb publishers of one kind or another. No, I was a twenty-four karat fake; that was the trouble.
For many and complicated reasons, circumstances had collaborated to make me ashamed that I was a tenant farmer’s son. As weak and warped as it is, and as difficult as it is even now to admit it, I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think of it, and worse to believe it. Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was. It was all out of an effort to pretend otherwise. I believe to this day, and will always believe, that in that moment I literally saved my life, because the next thought—and it was more than a thought, it was dead-solid conviction—was that all I had going for me in the world or would ever have was that swamp, all those goddamn mules, all the other beautiful and dreadful and sorry circumstances that had made me the Grit I am and will always be. Once I realized that the way I saw the world and man’s condition in it would always be exactly and inevitably shaped by everything which up to that moment had only shamed me, once I realized that, I was home free.
Yes, indeed. He was home free. He went on to publish many acclaimed novels. His biography Blood, Bone and Marrow, written by Ted Geltner, was published in 2016.
That’s why I always start coaching fiction writers or editing their work by getting to know them. Their creations are subject to many of the underlying psychological forces to which they themselves are also subject. I’ve been writing books since about 1991 and practicing psychiatry since about 1992. That’s probably no coincidence. Burrowing to the truth is essential in art—even in writing fiction—as it is in living life.
Keith Ablow, MD
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