My Soul to Keep (African Immortals series)

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Advice to Young Writers on the Eve of Wrestlemania


A while back, I gave a reading for Little Salon, a Washington, DC arts event that takes place in the comfort of someone’s living room. I read a poem called “Stroke Diary,” and I told the audience that the poem was very personal, as it attempts to capture the minute-by-minute unfolding of my wife’s 2009 stroke at the age of 27 and the paranoia that followed such an unexpected medical event.  

During the Q&A afterwards, I was asked how much of my work was autobiographical—the dreaded question. I answered that the “I” in the poems was, most times, actually me, but at the same time not really me. Instead, they were a version of me. Everything is both true and not true at once. Which naturally got me thinking about professional wrestling. 

What’s been most interesting to audiences in professional wrestling across the last two decades has been when and how the WWE writers integrate truth and storytelling. The fans are in on this. There are hundreds of “news” sites and Twitter accounts that spin out rumors from backstage—so-and-so doesn’t like this guy, this person’s contract is about to be up, this guy is losing so much because he failed a drug test, etc.—and I eat it all up along with millions of other people.  

As a fan, wrestling is best when those real-life factors get pulled into the on-screen drama. In a world that is so heightened and artificial, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has succeeded most when material from real life is mixed in subtly for those in-the-know, and the writers and performers can make the audience ask, wait, was that real? Just YouTube CM Punk’s top of the ramp pipebomb that closed out a 2011 Monday Night Raw to see what I mean. Where’s the line between the truth in employee Phil Brooks’s head and the fiction of wrestler CM Punk’s delivery? It’s like trying to separate the dancer from the dance. 

So how does this relate to the work of writing fiction and poetry? The principles of combining what’s real and what’s fake are the backbone of good storytelling. Here are a few things that you always hear about writing, advice that has become as cliché as a knocked-out ref during a title match pin, but with a few tweaks straight out of the world of pro wrestling.  

Write What You Know 

When you look back at the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the biggest Superstar WWE has ever had, his real rise begins in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). After being released from World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Austin was frustrated. He felt held down and held back. He knew what he was feeling, even if he didn’t know what was going to happen next. He channeled that emotion into his promos to transform from the Hollywood Blonde Stunning Steve Austin of WCW to the pissed-off Texas rattlesnake Stone Cold Steve Austin that we all know and love. It was the emotion behind Austin’s antics—the aggression, the hatred for one’s boss, the take-no-shit attitude—that defined him and helped him connect with fans, even more so than stompin’ mud holes in the competition.  

Your own life is where your most meaningful material comes from and where your weird obsessions, like wrestling, can be an advantage. If you work in healthcare for your day job, all of your stories don’t have to be about diseases and doctor’s offices. Maybe your grandma just died and that’s very sad, but a story about a dying grandma might not be that interesting. Instead, think of what the experience of losing a loved one has taught you. Now that you know what grief is, someday when you’re writing a story in which someone loses something or someone very important to them (grandma or no), you’ll know how to capture it, what metaphors to use, what images stay with you, what rings true.  

When novelist Tananarive Due’s relationship with a boyfriend ended in deception and feelings of betrayal, she used the experience to write My Soul to Keep. In the book, a young journalist (as Due was at the time) discovers her husband has been keeping secrets. [Spoiler alert] It turns out he’s a soulless cult member who needs to kill people to maintain his immortality. Due used what she knew of the stain of bad relationships and duplicity to create a stunning imaginative work. There are some things you have to learn the hard way. Use the emotional and behavioral truth of those things in your writing, not necessarily the real-world fact-truth.  

Know What’s Interesting to Your Readers 

The best wrestling gimmicks are when you have a version of the real person turned up to 11. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to really get working. The best example of this is The Rock. When he debuted as Rocky Maivia, the idea was to highlight his heritage from the famous Maivia wrestling family. He was a goofy-looking, grinning good guy. After struggling for a while in arenas full of “Die Rocky Die” chants, he was eventually added to the Nation of Domination, a bad guy stable, and only then, when he got the mic in his hand and was able to show off his quick wit and intensity, did people really take notice.  

The moral? You’ve got to know your role and shut your mouth until you have something interesting to say.  

Continuing with the dead grandma from above, sometimes things happen and they have a great impact on our lives, but they are completely uninteresting to other people. Young writers often spend a long time figuring this out. Drug stories are very rarely interesting. I-got-drunk-with-my-friends stories are almost never interesting. Cut through all those ideas and find the root of the conflict. Give your characters and speakers passions and ideas that are legitimately interesting and surprising to readers. You’ve got to figure out what you can say that no one else can say. 

It doesn’t matter that the Rock comes from a family of Hall of Fame in-ring performers. What’s interesting about the Rock is his mouth (and his eyebrow). Both versions of Dwayne Johnson’s character are true, to a degree. The reflect different parts of him. It’s just a matter of figuring out which parts of yourself and your writing will make people take notice. 

If you need an example of this from the literary world, look no further than Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic. Go Set A Watchman, not so much. Despite being marketed as a sequel, Watchman is reads much more as an early draft of Mockingbird. In the intervening time between the drafts, Lee, with the help of her editor, figured out what was really interesting about the story. She shifted the entire thing back into Scout’s childhood. She dropped or massaged many aspects of the various characters. She introduced more structure. She did all of these things in service to the reader, to make them fall in love with the people and the town, to create a story that would hold their interest. 

Make It New 

Perhaps you remember the love story of Macho Man Randy Savage and his manager Miss Elizabeth, which culminated in their in-ring wedding billed as “The Match Made in Heaven” at SummerSlam in 1991? In reality, Savage and Elizabeth had been married off-screen since 1984. The chemistry was real. Savage, who was notoriously jealous and possessive in real life, played the same character on television as the likes of Honky Tonk Man, George “The Animal” Steele, and Ric Flair all made advances on Elizabeth. At times, Savage’s over-protectiveness got the better of him, such as when he accused Hulk Hogan, his Mega Powers tag-team partner, of having eyes for Elizabeth. Hogan maintained they were just friends.  

In reality, at the time of their wrestling wedding, Savage and Elizabeth were already headed for divorce, which would be finalized in 1992, only a year after their “wedding.” Maybe it was portentous that the “Match Made in Heaven” was interrupted by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Undertaker? They knew it wasn’t going to work out. Maybe the whole wedding storyline was an attempt to rekindle Savage and Elizabeth’s off-screen relationship in a time of trouble? Either way, the pain of the real-life relationship was transformed into possibly the most important love story in wrestling. Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth is WWE’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 

So, shape truth into art. This is what wrestling does better than most writers just starting out. Take that truth that you know is interesting and apply your artistic skills—your language, your storytelling—and make it something completely new. That’s the art—not reinventing forms or innovating new styles, but taking life, digesting it, applying your skills as a writer, and making it something that is transformative. You know, like the WWE does. 

Then again, some of us have greatness thrust upon us. I’ve heard Tim O’Brien say he would have always been a writer, but the Vietnam War gave him something to write about. I think it’s much the same for Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE. He had always been an on-screen personality, most often as announcer, but in 1997 the “Montreal Screwjob” would give him the chance to be a SuperStar.  

Bret Hart was the champion, but he and Vince were unable to reach a contract agreement and so Bret was to leave shortly for WWE’s biggest competitor, WCW. Bret claims he was willing to drop the belt before leaving, but refused to lose to Shawn Michaels, his bitter rival, in Hart’s home country of Canada. He suggested losing to Michaels the next night when they returned to the States. McMahon was worried that Hart would not follow through on this promise, taking WWE’s top championship with him to another promotion, so a secret plan was hatched to ensure that Hart would not walk out of Survivor Series in Montreal as champion. 

Wrestling, and writing for the most part, is fake. We all know that. It’s truth through make-believe. The matches have pre-determined outcomes and everyone works together to tell the story. In this case, however, one person was left in the dark. At the climax of the match, Shawn Michaels put Bret Hart in Hart’s own trademark submission maneuver. The referee immediately called for the bell to stop the match even though Hart had not tapped out. Michaels grabbed the belt and retreated to backstage. An enraged Hart trashed the ringside area, spit on Vince McMahon, and signed to the crowd “WCW.” Real life came crashing into the ring, and to this day it’s the most talked-about moment in wrestling history.

Coming out of the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon knew that everyone hated him for what he had done. His employees felt betrayed. His audience was confused. How could he write his way out of this one? By making himself the villain. Announcer Vince became Mr. McMahon, the evil boss everyone loves to hate. This character turn created the “Attitude Era,” the height of WWE’s popularity, and gave Stone Cold Steve Austin’s working man the perfect foil to in his manipulative, vindictive boss. Vince and his writing team took the real life drama of losing his biggest star and made it new, revolutionizing the business in the process. 

Ezra Pound may have championed modernism with the slogan “Make it new,” but in order to make “it” new, we have to recognize the “it” was already there. We have to take the existing material and renovate it, reimagine it, change it from “it” into something “new.” Material or inspiration is all around us in our real lives. If you’re alive, it’s there. A creative writer sees that material and she adapts it. She takes what’s there and makes it new. 

Each year, Wrestlemania offers the climax of various WWE storylines that have been at play. Will the underdog finally win the championship? Or will the dastardly villain succeed? Will someone from our past come back to save us? Will someone be betrayed? Will that cocky heel get what’s coming to him? Will the individual defeat the corporation? Will someone defeat the undefeated?  

Will these stories move us or fall flat? It all depends on the creative staff getting the fundamentals right. The same can be said for all of us writers. We need to draw from our experience, find the most interesting parts, and transform them into compelling stories. No matter how ambitious our project, it’s these basic underpinnings of the craft that keep a piece of writing strong, that create emotion in a reader, and that ultimately let us have our Wrestlemania moment.  

Image: Unsplash/Joe Hernandez.

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