Rules for Writing Your (Non-Fictional) Life

In some ways, we are words. In some ways, words are everything. But what about fiction? If what we read isn’t real, can it still be true? How does it apply to us?

Made-up characters and storylines may not be true in the literal sense, but they are the brainchildren of real people and send real messages. When I stumbled upon Kurt Vonnegut’s “Rules for Writing Fiction,” I realized that they apply to more than books. Here, I’ve shifted the context of these rules from the frame of fiction to the frame of personal identity. Just as books need spines, so do we.

1. “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

When I see runners darting toward the horizon at 6 a.m., I root for them. I root for my peers fighting to be heard, for people I know and people I don't know, for the staff working around the clock on campus, for the kid who doesn't jump on the bandwagon. I find inspiration in them, and when I rest to catch my breath from all this rooting and take a step back I realize they're rooting for me, too.

2. “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

Everything we do, whether we know it or not, reveals who we are—from uncapped temper to untapped kindness. While it may not “advance the action” of our personal or professional lives, it adds to the growing collection of our own experiences. And sometimes even the most unpleasant of these experiences will make us change for the better. In that regard, it’s worth it.

3. “Start as close to the end as possible.”

Leaping from high school to college was both an end and a beginning for me, and I'm sure seniors at the 5Cs are experiencing a similar feeling as they hokey-pokey with one leg on campus and the other in the real world. These end-beginning fusions in life are often seen as milestones: promotions, weddings, retirement, and others. But they are just junctions that I think we tend to overemphasize. Regardless of where we “start”—the end, the beginning, or the middle—what’s important is that we keep going.

4. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

The point here isn't necessarily that we should please one person but rather that we should avoid trying to please everyone. It would be impossible to do so without projecting falsehood to an audience with finely-tuned BS meters. We contribute to the world simply by being ourselves, and that's more than enough. Also, pneumonia sucks.

5. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Vonnegut may want us to give readers as much information as possible, but in real life, knowing everything is an intellectual stunt. Most of us have the tendency to want to gain as much information as possible in order to make an educated decision. But what happens when there are gaps in our knowledge? Confusion, doubt, misunderstanding? 

We are equipped with the knowledge of who we are to some degree. Sometimes it’s tainted or incomplete, sometimes it needs chiseling, and often times it will ebb and flow as do the experiences that impact us–but it’s there. Even with limited knowledge of a given situation, we still need to know how to finish our story by ourselves, or at least how to start. If we can do this, cockroaches shouldn't be a problem.

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