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Posts Tagged ‘truth’

The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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I am, for the first time, writing about people who I have known in my life.

It’s kind of funny. People have often assumed, when they find out I am a writer (“Do you mean journalism?” “No, I write fiction.” “What do you want to write? Books?” “Hopefully.” “Books about what?”) that I will write about them, about my own life. Coworkers at workplaces teased me about finding themselves in my future books. Friends ask where I get my characters–if I model them on real people. My uncle jokes that I don’t have enough experience to write yet.

It is this mixture of curiosity, laughter, and sometimes skepticism. But part of it is often serious.

I’ve always said no. You will not be in my books. None of my workplaces, none of my friends. I’ve never had the desire to write about real people. The effort to capture someone on the page–especially someone you know well–to be faithful to them and follow them, is too much stress, to much responsibility. I have always felt it would mean surrendering the freedom of creation. To try and know what a person you really know would do and say and think–it is too much, it is not the same as the exhilaration of letting a character define himself as you define him. The limit of my “real life” characters was when I planned on killing off a teacher in a NaNoWriMo novel.

(I should clarify this. First of all, I never reached that point in the novel, so the character never died. Second of all, I have no personal grudge against this teacher–I got an A in the class–but the personality was too perfectly suited to this character’s role to pass up. Thirdly, it would have been an awesome and mysterious death, and very important to the novel.)

But lately I have been writing–or trying to write–a story about a family I knew growing up.

They are definitely the same people. The same wife and husband are married to each other, with the same children–although one of them is male and dead rather than female and alive, and they are younger than when I knew them. The father has the same hobbies. The mother has the same creativity. Various members have their various medical issues. Although the central event of the story is made up, it is based on two things that actually happened to this particular family. And I know that, outside of the story’s scope, this family will suffer the same losses.

But they are not the family I knew.

In fact, I find myself needing to completely forget, as far as possible, that these real people existed. To make the story even possible, I need to take it from them and give it to these other people: my characters, who must be free to think their own thoughts and live their own lives. I may even need to give the wife a different face, because she is stuck: stuck trying to be true to the real woman that, after all, I knew very little about.

The past few days I have been freewriting about this story, discovering things about these people–the characters, rather than the people whose street I remember, who are so richly complicated that I could not possibly capture them. (And that is one of the dangers: I want to put in everything I know about this family. Everything I remember. But I can’t. I can’t possibly.)

And I’m realizing, now, there are all sorts of ways I can write about the people I know, the things in my own life. To have a girl, somewhere, sometime, who is afraid and goes down steps one at a time; to have someone who feeds Oreos every evening to skunks in the back yard; to have the mother in charge of the children painting the set for the Wizard of Oz following the little boy who is painting v after v–“eagle” after “eagle”–in the sky and painting over them; to have a rented house with white carpet in the kitchen that the landlady always examines closely every time she visits … these are gifts to me as a writer. Facts that can be borrowed, rearranged, rewritten in the search for truth.

These people have given me their story, and perhaps part of my respect for them should be to make sure it is not them I am writing about.

***

I have just written the first rendered scene of this draft. First as in “first one I’ve written,” not “first in the narrative.” I would like also to write the beginning today. We’ll see.

***

And shoot, now I want to write that death. I do need to write that novel someday.

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