November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments
by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett
In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.
P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.
Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?
Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.
Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.
N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?
Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.
In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.
You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.
N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?
CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.
It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.
Memory is weird.
N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?
CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.
In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.
Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.
A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.
N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?
You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”
I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.
But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.
Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.
P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other places. Nat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.