On Writing, Transformation, and My Book
by Claire Rudy Foster ** SPECIAL EDITION **
I’ve always been good at making things up. When I was younger, still active in my addiction, I didn’t think of this as lying necessarily. I simply provided a better version of the truth.
Reality is messy. It has ragged edges, broken veins, and loose ends.
My stories, which is how I described my lies, were neat, the way a line of china white has a tidiness to it. I meticulously crushed and tapped and piled my facts into a tiny mountain of expensive, undigestable dust.
And, of course, it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I told stories about life that made living bearable. These stories included details about a job I either didn’t have or didn’t like, imaginary friends who took up my evenings, and a marked absence of trouble that a more accomplished liar would have immediately recognized as a sign of untruthfulness.
In my stories, I was always the hero. That changed when I got sober, and I had to learn how to start telling the truth.
Not just any truth—the whole truth, with its skin on.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with James Frey, the famously infamous writer whose novel “A Million Little Pieces” put him in the spotlight a decade ago. Oprah loved the book, then denounced Frey when he admitted that it was, after all, mostly fiction. Thousands of readers who’d believed Frey’s story demanded their money back, and the scandal, if you want to call it that, made him a household name overnight.
I’ve read dozens of articles about this controversy as I’ve pawed my way through “A Million Little Pieces,” and I have to admit that I’m on Frey’s side. Not because I’m an addict and an alcoholic, but because I understand what is important about telling a story. Fiction is the truth inside the lie, says Stephen King, and Frey told a story that contains a necessary truth about addiction.
Addiction hurts, it’s frightening, and it doesn’t go away. That’s true.
Pam Houston, a teacher of mine who also had Frey in her classes at UC-Davis, said, “If you were moved, you got your money’s worth.”
So what’s the line between truth and lies in fiction?
When I was using, every lie I told did two things. First, it convinced me that my addiction wasn’t destroying my life. Second, it reassured the people around me that nothing was wrong, so that my addiction could continue. Lying was a double-blind, which kept me from seeing what was happening to me and simultaneously prevented me from getting help from the people around me.
When I occasionally told the truth—which I did, it kept me in practice—it was about only the most concrete things, such as the color of my eyes. But I found ways to be imprecise about those facts, too. My eyes, after all, change color, and there could be a whole list of reasons why. My first sponsor, when I finally made it to AA, pointed out my inability to not make up stories. To answer a yes-or-no question without excuses or elaboration.
It was much harder than it sounds.
Slowly, I learned to let my yes be yes, and my no be no. And I kept writing. Like Frey, my fiction took on a painful element that felt a little too real. I couldn’t lie in real life, which meant that my short stories darkened.
This could be true, this might have happened, they said.
I also learned that most people assumed that I was writing from my own experience, which made me uncomfortable. After a lot of practice, I hit a manageable balance: in real life, I aim for 100% veracity. On the page? It’s more like 85%.
The wiggle room, that 15%, is where I get to play. I was relieved, after so much truth-telling, that I could still make things up. Of course, there has to be a balance. The six stories in my first book, I’ve Never Done This Before, all contain a grain of truth.
And that grain is . . . addiction affects everyone, not just the addict. It’s life’s wild card, and when the substance of choice appears, nobody can predict what will happen next.
Hold those stories up to the light and they turn to lace. My personal experience is in each one—kind of. The things I’ve heard and seen, the places I’ve been, the ways I’ve been hurt are all represented, but not in a way that exposes me.
Addiction is a mystery to me, and I would say that I’m only 85% an expert on it. Like Frey, I’m not interested in saving your soul. You can do that for yourself. My stories are designed to move you.
And that’s the honest truth.
*Editor's Note: Below you'll find the copy of Daniel Maurer's blurb he provided for the back cover of I've Never Done This Before. Believe me, the book is flippin' amazing!
About The Author
Claire Rudy Foster will be inducted into the annals of "authorship" upon the publication of her first book, I’ve Never Done This Before. She is also a regular contributor to Transformation is Real.