Friday, February 1, 2013

Truthiness in Writing

As a teenager I occasionally watched the TV show, The Dukes of Hazard. Please don’t hate me for it. It was 1979 and good TV hadn’t been invented yet.

To me, all the episodes of ‘Dukes kind of blend together, with lots of formulaic moments. Uncle Jesse spouting some sort of country wisdom, Daisy Duke in her ‘ahem’ “Daisy Dukes,” and almost without fail, the Duke-boys’ car, the General Lee, jumping yet another ravine or washed out bridge, driving on unharmed, safe on the other side of the jump. But it was that moment, as the General Lee landed and drove on, that I was always thrown out of the episode, thinking: No one could walk away—let alone drive away—from that car jump. It would end more like this. (Apparently 150 General Lees were destroyed over the lifespan of that show.)
How the General Lee would look after landing a few of those jumps
Similarly, in the movie Independence Day, earth scientists program an Apple computer (in a few hours) to deliver a virus to an alien computer that will shut down all their space ships and literally save the day.
Meanwhile from my Mac I send out a .docx file (instead of a .doc file) to my friend on another Mac computer. He can’t open my file. It's not compatible enough. Game over man.

And, in the recent movie The Hobbit (pt 1--which I actually did enjoy), there is a scene under the mountain where the dwarves go through an action sequence that defies gravity and all probability as they run from a mob of hundreds of goblins and then fall thousands of feet down a cliff riding a rickety pile of wood, only to land safely and unharmed. They get up, the unexpected journey continues….
I leave to pee. No character is in any immanent danger. Jr. Mints at the concession stand are in order, too. No need to hurry back. When I return, the dwarves will be putting together an Ikea dresser. If they can survive that fall, they'll survive everything else they encounter, too.

So what I’m trying to say here is that when believability, or maybe even truth, is violated in a story, you as the reader/viewer find yourself questioning what just happened and are no longer following the story.

The opposite can also sometimes happen in writing, too. Sometimes it’s the real things that lose people’s interest, or take them out of the story.

A few months back I was working on a short horror story called “Trotline.” Part of the story is about vampires. Part of it is a series of flashbacks about a teenager working fishing trotline for extra money with his father. One of the comments that I got back in my critiques surprised me. In summary: “No one would do all this work to sell fish for 50¢ a pound. Not in Minnesota!” But as it turns out, that aspect of the story was very autobiographical for me. One year as a teen I did work a trotline and sold the fish for pennies on the pound—in Minnesota (it was fun with lots of cool moments, but really made no money at all). So the part of my story that was true, that I had lived through—wasn’t believable—and it didn’t jive with what seems real in today’s world. But yet, it did happen. I lived it. When I finally rewrite my short story (it’s in my editing stack) I’ll listen to that critique—and I will be rewriting some of the “real” details to further fictionalize this actual part of the story. Then maybe it will fit in and feel “real” and not trip my readers. The one improbably element of my short story that no one questioned? Vampires.

In the fall of 2011 I attended a novel writing conference at the Loft. The keynote speaker, Pam Houston, talked a lot about truth in writing. She writes short stories, essays and memoir. She told a very funny story of how once while working for a magazine as a travel writer, she wrote and sold a travel piece about canoeing in France. In one segment of the story she told of flirting with another canoe full of Italian men on a beautiful stretch of river. The “fact checker” (do such jobs still exist in 2013?) for the magazine phoned her, questioning some of the details of the article. Pam admitted she had embellished some of it—but the magazine liked it and published her article. In particular the magazine fact-checker said that they loved the part in her article where Pam flirted with the hunky, Italians. The truth, the real truth, she admitted, was that she’d made up the whole story. The weather in France that time of year was rainy and dreadful. She’d never set foot in a canoe during her entire trip—and despite how well she’d written them, there were never any hunky Italian guys to flirt with.

At the end of her presentation (and I hope I’m quoting correctly) Pam Houston said that when she wrote memoir, she believed about 82% of what she wrote was real or the “truth.” When writing fictional stories she believed that about 82% of what she wrote was the “truth.”

What is real in your work that nobody will believe?

What is fictional in your work that no one will question?

Wishing you real writing—or better yet unreal writing.


Note: for more on reality in writing, please keep scrolling to see Lisa’s excellent piece below!

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