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As months go, I’ll pit November against any of its 11 inferior siblings. It has so much to recommend it–beautiful brisk weather, the occasional cleansing snowfall, root vegetables in abundance, the end of that awful daylight savings nonsense, the all-too-brief cessation of political ads and Thanksgiving, the best holiday of them all. Of course this is all subjective and only my opinion. Probably, there are some of you out there who love daylight savings time and political ads. You may have a particular affinity for Groundhog Day or sweltering heat. I personally am related to some people who think Christmas shopping is fun. The point I’m trying to make is that what is true for me is not necessarily true for anyone else.
I’ve been thinking about truth and what it means to write something true, especially in fiction. It should be simpler in nonfiction, in memoir. To quote one of the many memorable things Mary Karr said during her recent visit to Lighthouse: “It’s not like sexing a chicken.” In other words, it isn’t difficult to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction and we ought not try to pass one off as the other. In the past 10 years or so, there have been quite a few scandals surrounding memoirists who embellished the facts or outright made them up: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones aka Margaret Seltzer (even the name is a lie!) and it goes on and on. Again I’ll quote Mary Karr: “Writers fail because they lie.”
This is just as true for fiction writers as it is for nonfiction writers. It’s true for poets and playwrights and screenplay writers. Truth in fiction isn’t about facts, of course, but about striking a true chord. In workshops we often say that something “rings true,” by which we mean that the passage or scene feels authentic to the reader. Sometimes we note that something doesn’t quite ring true. “I don’t buy it,” we say. The author inevitably speaks up to say, “but that actually happened!” This, it seems to me, is the key. It’s perfectly okay to mine your own life experience for fiction. It’s not okay to write it poorly or to write it as a reporting of facts in the midst of fiction. It’ll seem clunky and out of place, much like the fabricated elements of a memoir seem kind of ridiculous once someone goes to the very little trouble of fact-checking a few things. In fiction, we aren’t being true to the facts of memory or of life, we are being true to the story we’ve created. Something that actually happened in the course of regular life won’t necessarily just drop in and serve the story.
I faced this exact dilemma recently when grappling with a short story that I’d set in a place very similar to a place where I once worked. This place was full of interesting characters. It was messy. It was chaotic. It seemed the perfect setting. I couldn’t make it work. No matter how much I tried, the setting seemed flat and wrong for the action. Finally, it occurred to me that my problem was in trying to portray the setting too accurately. I was being hampered by my own memories. Once I freed myself to move the furniture around (literally and metaphorically), the story began to take shape. It began to ring true. In terms of my story, I had been lying and therefore failing. Now, like Mary Karr (I have a wee literary crush), I am setting forth to try to write “one true sentence.” Then, I’m going to try to write one more.