Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The truth of things

When my Mom and I had breakfast together last weekend she told me that of all my writing, she loves my essays most. She didn't mean to insult my novels (I've only allowed her to read one anyway), but she said that when i write about the truth, I do so in a way that really packs a punch (for her). I appreciate this on one hand because I so rarely write an essay. On the other hand it's frustrating because the few essays I have written have come out of me as a matter of urgent process and less about actually crafting something. Plus, every essay I've gotten published has required an insane amount of revision. Draft upon draft. I told my Mom, "I hate writing essays because I have such a difficult time writing facts. I keep asking myself, 'did this really happen?' 'Is this lying?"

It got me to thinking about the manuscripts of clients I have edited that are non-fiction, particularly memoir pieces. This is the touchiest, most difficult, painful, messy stuff to write, but seems to yield the most powerful results when done well. Book buyers flock to buy good non-fiction, confirming what I believe to be the equation of: "I trust my feelings most when what I read really happened." Readers trust a writer more when they think that the events are true. And readers will fly into a snit, worse, a rage of disgust, if they learn that a writer fabulized, fictionalized or tweaked the truth but still called it "memoir."

Still, let's face it, life itself has very little cohesive structure. Meaning is imposed later, in memory, in retrospect, when we embellish the story for our friends in the retelling. Not a single one of the essays my mother has read and loved happend "just like that." They are refracted through a lens or a few even. I have to keep my audience in mind. I have to put the events in an order that delivers some kind of "punch" as my mom described it, or else, the reader will come away feeling like, "So what, another bad day in a life. Big whoop." But do I lie? No, these are facts as I experienced them. Would the other people involved remember the evetns in the same way. Not likely. Perception is powerfully varied among people.

This is the hardest thing to communicate to new writers of non-fiction. Just because it happened does not good writing make. Truth must be crafted, rearranged. This is why I write fiction predominantly, because then I have the liberty to do whatever the hell I please with it. This is what I have been trying to teach my parents about my writing. "Just because there's a bad/angry/complicated/sad/drug-addled parent in my story or novel does not mean I've based it on either of you!" I gave my dad this bad analogy: "If I made a snowman, and borrowed your jacket to put around his shoulders, would you come look at that snowman and say, "it's got such a big nose. Do you think I have a big nose?" No, of course not. Well my fiction is molded beneath the real jacket, say, of a person I know, but the rest is interpreted, taken from the stores of my own knowledge of human behavior, with the occasional patch that may look characteristic of people I know, but not wholly so.

This is because I am cowardly. I do not want to tell it like it really was, for fear of hurting those who haven't yet been able to look at parts of the past completely. Because I still intend to have relationships with these people. So I fictionalize the truth, obscure it, reinvent it, which also allows me to find other kinds of meaning in it. Yes, I'd like to write more about what really happened, and I encourage my editing clients to do so bravely, fiercely, because it is only bravely that one can write about the truth. If you dance around the truth or brush only up to the surface, readers will not be sold, and they won't care. We read non-fiction, I think, to hear other people say the things we cannot. And anyone who can write it honestly and boldly should be praised, and should keep at it.

2 Comments:

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

Great essay!! I never thought there was such a fine line between truth and fiction. One could argue that if whatever your feelings are after an experience has been filtered through your own personal lenses, then that's the truth as you experienced it. I too have been guilty of trying to read into your fiction for bits of biography about you and E. I guess I'm too narrow to realize that you can make something up totally on your own. Maybe in the next life.

 
At 1:03 PM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Hey thanks! A lot of people actually don't even know the difference between a novel and a memoir, they don't even consider these things...and of course we glean from our lives for our fiction, but even someone you might think you recognize is probably more me than anyone else.

I've had published authors tell me that they were terrified to publish a book for fear that a family member would take issue with a detail, only to have another family member take issue with a totally fictional detail they THOUGHT was them!

Hee hee...

What you must think of us if you were extrapolating truth from my fiction!!

 

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