Monday, January 2, 2017

Every Word is True (#fiction #imagination #autobiography)

Quill Pen

By Lisabet Sarai

Is it a true story?”

When a reader asks an author this question, she usually means, “Is this autobiographical? Did this really happen to you?”

When it comes to my tales, I can answer yes in a surprising (or possibly shocking) number of cases. Yes, I did drive topless in a sports car along Mulholland Drive, as Ruby does in Nasty Business. Yes, I was fucked with the wooden finial unscrewed from a bedpost, like Kate in Raw Silk. Yes, I got up on stage to dance with the go-go girls in 1980’s Bangkok, though my costume was somewhat less revealing than my heroine’s. Gregory’s emails to Kate quote word for word from the letters my master sent me during his long-distance seduction. The sex clubs and orgies I describe in Incognito borrow heavily from my experiences in New York and Amsterdam.

The settings of my stories, especially, are true. My characters walk the streets I’ve walked myself. They live in apartments I rented. They shop where I shopped. When they travel, they visit the same attractions and eat the same food.

However, even when I create stories that deviate from my personal experience, I work to make them “true”, in the sense of “genuine”. As I’ve matured as an author, I have moved further away from autobiography. At the same time, I’ve learned to create more complex, nuanced and plausible characters. Ironically, these characters are more true than my early heroines, who tended to be somewhat shallow fantasy versions of myself.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten better at allowing characters to speak for themselves. Rather than consciously “designing” them beforehand, I set my protagonists (and my villains) free to act and react as the book unfolds. If I am successful, these characters acquire a sort of organic quality, a consistency and depth. If I told you these characters were based on actual people in my past life, you’d probably believe me.

There’s another kind of truth in some of the stories that are closest to my heartthe truth of what might have been. Quite a few of my shorter tales are set in an alternative reality in which I did not split up with my master, but instead made a life with him. I’ve imagined, again and again, the trials and joys of living in a committed D/s relationship. In these stories, I can express the emotions I’ve mostly had to stifle in real life. I can also consider the difficulties involved in such a relationship, as it is tested by time, external circumstances and the inevitability of imperfectly aligned desires.

In fact, I’ve spent so much time in this parallel universe that sometimes I forget it doesn’t exist. I smile when I think about that long-ago kinky trip to Rocky’s Ace Hardware. I remember the time I came from just a spanking, without any sexual stimulation. I recall, with queasy excitement, the night my master cut his initials into my flesh. These incidents are as real to me as yesterday’s newsmore so, really, because I care more about them than about politicians and movie stars.

I’ve shared some of these visions here at the Grip, so I think you’ll recognize what I am talking about. My post from the last topic cycle is a perfect example.

This vignette, like much of the BDSM I write, is fueled by fantasy and wishful thinking. Still, it bowls me over whenever I re-read it. Maybe I am flattering myself, but I suspect most readers will sense the depth and power of the feelings in that piece. It’s totally fictional. Yet every word is true.


  1. ... Rather than consciously “designing” them beforehand, I set my protagonists (and my villains) free to act and react as the book unfolds. If I am successful, these characters acquire a sort of organic quality, a consistency and depth. ...

    I would add that a sense of spontaneity can be effected with that 'pantser' kind of technique. Rather than a planned character without his/her own leeway.

    1. I definitely agree. I've had to learn to be a "pantser"--to release control. It doesn't always pan out, but when it does, the results can be impressive.

    2. Even for short stories (well, that's pretty much all I've written, so far) I just start with a spark of who the characters are, and let my subconscious, or serendipitous bits of reading, or coincidental news, click into place to make, I hope, a layered whole. Definitely pantsering, I suppose, although areas other than the pants do a good share of the work.

    3. " areas other than the pants do a good share of the work"

      Great line, Sacchi!

    4. I was hoping someone would appreciate that!

    5. I'm always confused by the dogmatic opposition of plotting and inventing as you go. In my opinion, most writers end up working their way toward a balance of these elements. It's totally possible to make plans and also give characters organic leeway. Can't resist making this point because the plotter vs pantser thing is one of those debates that I think creates a polarization that isn't very useful.

  2. Heh. This is a great description of the writing process, Lisabet and Sacchi. (And obviously, not every writer follows the same process.)
    I hate questions about how much of a narrative is "true," not because I'm unwilling to give away Too Much Information (as writers tend to do), but because everyone's life includes other people. Changing the details not only makes for a more coherent story, in many cases, it can also prevent hard feelings and accusations that you got it all wrong.

    1. What I find interesting is the fact that after 18 years publishing (and a lifetime of writing), my writing process continues to change. I've also noticed that the process varies somewhat depending on the story/book.

      I've rarely imported an entire person wholesale as a character, for the reasons you cite. Although very few of the people from my past know about my writing personna anyway...

  3. "It’s totally fictional. Yet every word is true."

    This is a gorgeous line, and an awesome intro to the topic. I really appreciate the way you run through various types of truth here, and how they work their way into one's writing. I have a very similar experience, though I don't think I've articulated it this well before! :)


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