Dangerous Writing Is Writing and Lying, by Tom Spanbauer

Editor Matty Byloos, Editor's Choice, April 8th, 2014

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer...

francis bacon

Author Tom Spanbauer talks openly about the difference between the kind of writing he teaches, which is rooted in personal history and told through the filter of close personal narrative, and thinly veiled memoir writing that one might refer to as a Roman à clef, wherein a writer pens a story about real life, and then thinly veils the fiction by merely changing characters’ names.

+ + +

There are generally one of two assignments for people first starting out in a Dangerous Writing class. The first is to write about a moment that after you were different. The second is to write about an event that you don’t quite remember.

Both of these assignments ask the writer to go to his or her own personal experience, and then build on it. I like suggesting to new students that they go to personal experiences because the tendency these days seems to be to write vampire stories, or fantasy stories, or stories that the student thinks Hollywood would buy.

But more important, I think most students tend to believe that the story is something outside of them.

Also I think these assignments challenge many students’ belief that their own story is not important, is probably self-indulgent, and would break the taboo of sounding sentimental.

The Dali Lama once said: when you meet someone, look them in the eye and be kind, because within those eyes there is a great battle waging.

Since we’re all human, by going inside to our own particular battles, really what we’re all doing is fighting a much larger battle that is overarchingly human.

To talk about being human is to talk about the pain and sorrow in your own heart. To put that story outside yourself in the act of writing is to create an invention through which you can understand your own humanity.

This is how I’ve written all my novels. I start with something true, something inside me that won’t let me be, and then I build a fiction around it. And that’s exactly what I did with my latest novel. I Loved You More. My close friend died and we hadn’t spoken in seven years. I Loved You More was my invention to begin to understand my grief.

There’s another aspect of the two assignments that’s important to talk about. Although the assignment is to write a personal story, you have the permission to lie. If you’re writing about a moment that after you were different and you don’t quite remember the details, then lie. If you’re trying to remember an event you don’t quite remember, and there’s a lot you don’t quite remember, then make it up.

As my writing teacher always said: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer.

Actually I think Van Gogh is the guy who originally talked about the need to make changes in reality, which become lies that are truer than the literal truth. Our stories, the emotional truth of them, live in us and through the telling.

The shadow side of the Dangerous Writing process is when you’ve finished your novel or your short story, because of its personal nature, to many people, your story will sound like a memoir, or a roman à clef. Roman à clef is a term that applies to a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names.

A quick note about memoir. If there is a student in my class writing a memoir, then that student has to abide by the rule: no lying allowed. Lying is only for fiction.

So what’s the difference between a novel that is really the facts except the names have been changed, and a novel that is written, say, in the style of Dangerous Writing?

Roman à clef suggests that the writer, sitting behind a thin veil, is simply reporting what real people, whose names he has changed, are doing. The writer is recording appearances. It’s as if the writer is a photographer constantly taking photos of her real people subjects, and then pasting these photos into a book. The final product, the writer’s invention, the “novel,” is a horizontal process, from subject to the official copy of the subject, and is like a book of photos in which the representational image is always only recorded.

The Dangerous Writer is so much more than a recorder. I like to refer to my hero, the painter Francis Bacon, when talking about Dangerous Writing. Francis Bacon liked to paint popes, and is very famous for his paintings entitled Screaming Popes. Bacon always painted from a photograph.

So Francis Bacon takes his photo of a pope — this strange guy adorned with vestments, with a miter or a weird hat — and starts to paint from it. What Bacon says about his process is that he wants to wash the realistic appearance of the photo back onto his nervous system. He wants to distort the image to its extreme, but in the distortion, bring it back to a recording of the appearance. The result of Bacon’s process is a startlingly violent, raw image of a sexually repressed, power corrupted, manipulative patriarchal monster with bad teeth.

Bacon sees nearly all of us as living through screens — a screened existence, and he says that sometimes when people say his work looks violent that perhaps he has from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.

To write dangerously is to write like Francis Bacon paints. The writer does not stand behind a thin veil and record experience. The writer is an artist, is a magician who puts on a mask. The mask is the author reinventing his own story, looking through fresh eyes at his own invention. Oscar Wilde said if you want to know the truth, ask the person with the mask on. The person with the mask on is the one who will tell you the truth. The Dangerous Writer puts on her Dangerous Writing mask and like a true magician starts to make magic. She intentionally cultivates among her characters what could possibly go wrong, then exaggerates it. The Dangerous Writer manipulates, creates tension and drama where in “real life” there was no tension and drama. He connives, dishes, exaggerates, does not report the representational image, but rather fucks it up by washing the image back onto his nervous system. Distorts the truth. Says it wrong, says it weird, says it backwards. Rips down the screens and the veils we all live through. She weaves the universal within the ordinary. But most of all the Dangerous Writer lies.

And lies and lies and lies.

And a remarkable thing, with all this lying, conjuring, distorting, ripping of veils, fucking with it, something is captured that we are not used to thinking about. There is something that opens up, a space of possibilities that opens up, a way of inhabiting the world that opens up. A disclosure that needed a space provided for it. And that brings up back to Francis Bacon. Bacon, within his painting, his invention, says he wants to catch the mystery of the appearance within the mystery of the making.

How a thing is made, how it was conjured, decides how it appears. The art of making it makes it an it.

I know of nobody, who after viewing a Screaming Pope, has asked: is that Pope Benedict XVI, or is that Pope Francis?

If you went outside tonight and tonight was a clear night, when you looked up to the heavens would you see Van Gogh’s Starry Night?

The process of telling fiction is not objective and horizontal. The process of fiction is subjective and is vertical.

By vertical I mean that the Dangerous Writer, by her stance of telling the lie to tell the truth truer — how the story is told, the voice, how the story is made, how she captures what we haven’t been thinking about — is what makes the story, the story.

The writer of the roman à clef copies reality and tries to cover up that he’s copied.

The Dangerous Writer makes all that shit up. And shouts it out for all to hear: “Hell, I’m just trying to bring my own experience out through this invention to understand my own humanity and story.”

My book, I Loved You More, is the invention, the disclosure, the space provided for. It is the screaming pope I painted from a half dozen snapshots taken from our lives, washed over my nervous system, my broken heart at the death of my friend, and turned into art.

As William of Heaven says in Shy Hunters, “Make it aware, make art out of it.”

+ + +

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy reading his essay on “Being Queer in Idaho,” here.

Or catch the NAILED interview with Tom Spanbauer, conducted by Colin Farstad, in Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

+ + +

author tom spanbauerTom Spanbauer grew up on a farm twelve miles outside Pocatello, Idaho. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School and Highland High School. In 1969, he received his BA in English Literature from Idaho State University. Tom served two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya, East Africa. He returned to Idaho until 1978, when he decided he needed to get out of that state. He moved to New Hampshire, then Vermont, then Key West, Florida. In 1988, Tom studied at Columbia University while waiting tables at Café Un Deux Trois and Odeon, and being a super of five buildings on East Fifth Street. In 1988, he received his MFA from Columbia in Fiction. In 1991, Tom settled in Portland, Oregon where he teaches Dangerous Writing in the basement of his house. Forty (more or less forty—-he’s lost count) of his students have published novels and/or memoirs. His novels include Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, In The City of Shy Hunters, and Now Is the Hour.


Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).