Matters of Life and Death, Part 5 (Conclusion)

I present the conclusion of the exercise created by Melanie Rae Thon (with the help of Anna Deavere Smith and Natalie Goldberg). Excellent for memory work or bridging the gap from autobiographical to fiction writing. Please Parts 1-4.

Part 5: Endless Translations

For brave hearts! This final step is meant to help you burst through all the limits of your personal experience, to begin traveling in the space between the self and the other, to gain enough flexibility, compassion, and curiosity to move in both directions (i.e. to sometimes begin in your own experience, and sometimes begin by focusing your loving attention on people who seem strange or terrifying).


Now you have a fictionalized account of a true event. But maybe a weird thing happened. Maybe the fiction feels more true because you’ve changed the details or people in order to capture the emotional experience. This almost always happens for me. It’s the magic of making fiction.

It’s why I do it. I want to understand my people and their stories, and sometimes the simple “facts” get in the way.

If you still don’t think this is fictional enough, try telling the story from the point of view of another character in the piece. How do the facts change?

Try altering “yourself.” Imagine the same story happening in the life of someone of the opposite sex, or someone 10 years older or younger than yourself.

Or, if you want to be more radical, take the primary emotion (guilt, sorrow, rage) and chanceallexternal circumstances. Here’s an example: I once wrote a story, mostly autobiographical, about a girl who hates her grandmother. When the grandmother dies, the girl feels responsible. The primary emotion is guilt. Years later I wrote a story about a white woman who feels responsible for the death of a slave in 1858. My intimate understanding of guilt was one of many autobiographical sources I tapped to imagine this story.

There’s no limit to the possibilities of translation. A story that’s essentially sad can be written in a comic way. A funny story can become dangerous, even deadly. Keep exploring until you find the version you like best, the one that captures the story truth most vividly.

Experiment, have fun, enjoy your people. Writing is an adventure, a plunge into the unknown, a process of discovery. Take delight in the journey, and try not to worry too much about the goal.

Once again, all of these steps can be applied to fictional as autobiographical material! Every story requires some kind of research. The dramatic events in any character’s life are fused and transformed by what s/he remembers and what s/he creates through imagination.

This is not the only way to make fiction! Each writer must discover his or her own process. But this is one solid way to begin, and I offer it to you in the hopes that some of you will find it helpful (now, and in the years to come).

I first completed this process in graduate school, over the period of several weeks. At the time I had no story in mind to tell, so I really gave myself over to the exercise. Even now I return to the original writing I did during that first time. Since then I have repeated Thon’s exercise in parts and in its entirety. Every time is different, which is part of its value.

In terms of teaching, I have never used the entire process, start to finish. Instead I’ve done a stripped down version that captures the general idea. For the most part students respond well to it. We really focus on finding the grain of truth in the writing. You can create fantastical worlds, but they must have some core truth to them that will make readers care. By tapping into a truth they themselves have felt, they often carry that over into their writing. The main pitfalls are that they tend to tell instead of show, they often get too caught up in the facts, and/or they focus too much on telling the story and lose the emotion. However, these sore spots provide great teaching moments to help them improve.
Thanks to all of you who have read through this series. I truly hope it helps inspire you! Please visit again later this week for my tribute to Ray Bradbury.

Categories: Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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