1. When I was in my freshman year at Oberlin College, I almost got beat up by a football player.
I was hanging out with a close female friend whom I’d known from Oberlin Theater Institute, which we’d both attended the summer before. She introduced me to the guy she had gone out with the night before, and when he found out I was gay, he threatened to beat me up. When she saw this side of him, she was mortified and immediately broke up with him.
We went out to the quad outside her dorm, and we drank beers and cried about what had happened. It had scared both of us. At one point she said, “I’m just not happy,” and she threw her beer bottle. It hit the concrete leg of a bench, shattered, and beer spilled all over the grass. We looked at each other and started to laugh, because we both thought it was a hilarious way to deal with being unhappy. I then threw my bottle, and while it didn’t break, the beer did spill out.
2. That same year at Oberlin, I joined the baseball team.
At Oberlin, there is a one-month period (January) when students focus on one or two projects, and I became part of a comedy improv group and did the winter workouts for baseball. I was openly gay at Oberlin, and word spread pretty quickly about this. One of the team captains was sensitive to this, and made sure the other guys treated me well. They did treat me well, but they also mostly avoided me, and it felt so awkward that I knew I’d wind up quitting the team. Which I did, after three weeks.
One day during my second week, after a practice, this senior pitcher named Ben waited for me outside the locker room. I remember it was a particularly gray day, and he walked me to my dorm. As we walked, my heart was thumping because I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of pick up. Then he started asking me questions.
“If I were a gay guy, would I be considered hot?”
I told him, “Yeah, kinda hot.”
He asked, “Should I get a new haircut?”
I was like, I’m really the wrong kind of gay dude for you to ask. But instead, I told him, “Maybe a bit shorter in the back.”
He thanked me, and we never spoke again.
3. That spring, the comedy improv group became my everything. I had quit the baseball team, I was barely going to class, and I’d sleep in most days. Unbeknownst to me, I was clinically depressed, and I handled it by mostly hanging out in friends’ rooms talking and drinking, and coming up with funny sketches.
We’d have shows on weekends. Some of our scenes included “A.A.” (Annie’s Anonymous, where former child stars who once played Annie would get help), and “The boneless family,” in which I played father to a rebellious girl named Barley, and the more she rebelled, the more my bones would stop supporting me.
In early May, we did a show where only five people showed up. I remember the feeling of doing the show for an unresponsive, tiny audience, and after the show I felt numb inside. I went out and sat under a tree. It was pouring rain, and I sat there, motionless, for most of the night. I simply couldn’t figure out how to move my body. Within three days, I was heading back home to New York to deal with what the doctors called a severe depression.
Two of these things happened to me during my youth. One didn’t.
Can you guess which is the lie? I’ll tell you at the end.
The point is that all three are indicative of a certain kind of character in a certain kind of circumstance. All three certainly could have happened to Bill the First-Year College Student, who, we now understand, was still struggling with feelings.
I mention this because it speaks to a terrific writing exercise that you can use, especially if you write realistic fiction, especially if you use some of your own life experiences to shape your characters. I cannot tell you how many “well-formed lies” and “almost happeneds” populate my fiction. Hundreds.
Write down two true stories from one period of your life that are interesting. Capture as much singular detail as you can remember. Now come up with one story that almost happened, or you wish happened, or just about happened but change some facts. Make sure you use the same singular detail, even if some or all of those details are false. Make them seem true.
Do it, and you’ll now know what it feels like to be a fiction writer. Because that’s what we do.
The above story about bottle throwing? Truly happened to me. I transposed it into a scene in Openly Straight between Rafe and Claire Olivia.
The soccer teammate asking Rafe whether he would be considered hot if he were gay? Never happened, though it could have, I guess.
The apple-picking scene where the kids created apple gangs in Openly Straight? Happened. Then getting kicked out for throwing apples? Almost happened.
The quiet, sexy moment in the laser tag arena in Out of the Pocket? Happened. The girl and guy placing their guns directly against each other’s targets and shooting each other during the ensuing argument? Could have happened.
That’s what fiction writers do, and we’re lucky. Fiction allows us to mine our lives and use our experiences, and also to change our experiences to make them more true to our characters. It also allows us to conjure up situations that are emotionally true, if not actually.
I can see that 18-year-old baseball player, so excited that an upper-classman had waited for him and was talking to him. I can feel his heart pulsing fast as he wonders what will happen next, and I can feel the sinking sensation in his gut when the boy says goodbye.
It doesn’t matter that it didn’t happen. It easily could have.
The truth is that I have become so accustomed to mining my life for emotional truths that I sometimes lose track of what is true and what is a lie.
In fact, as I wrote this, I realized that I am only about 60% sure that my facts are correct in the two “full truths,” the first and third stories. And some of the second story is true: I did practice with the baseball team that January, and I did quit. Truths morph into lies, and lies morph into truth, and keeping track of what really happened is an exhausting task for which I hope never to be graded.
That sounds terrible, but I’m guessing any fiction writer worth his or her salt probably will tell you the same thing. It’s hard to keep fiction and non-fiction separate after a while. Lots of things could have happened in my life. Some did.
*If you’re suffering from deja vu with this article, it may be because you saw it last week. I wrote a similar article and then took it down for personal reasons.