October 1, 2010 / 4 Comments

Avoiding Reality

So sorry that I didn’t post anything last week. The past several days have been a mess of articles and book stuff and dental nightmares. Yup, I’m one tooth down from the last time we were all here. And my gums are sore as hell right there, let me tell you…

This is going to be one of those rants where I come across as especially harsh and bitter, so I apologize right up front for that, too. Awful as it may seem, I’m doing this for your own good. And mine, so I don’t have to deal with this sort of thing anymore. Hopefully not as much, anyway.

I’ve blathered on here a few times about reality and truth in storytelling. Not in the sense of getting your facts correct, but in the sense of telling true stories based on real events. Awful as it sounds, no one cares if a story is true or not. They really don’t. They might be interested or impressed after the fact (“Wow, someone actually went through all that?”) but while a reader’s going through a manuscript the fact that it’s based on a true story is even less important than if the writer submitted it in a white envelope or a manila one. And most people submit their work digitally these days, so that should tell you how piddling the envelope factor is.

So, for the record, odds are none of the following events will make a good story. Not a “based on true events” story. Definitely not a memoir.

–Birth of your child

–Loss of your child

–Finding true love

–Loss of a loved one

–Loss of a parent

–Recovering from cancer/ AIDS/ Parkinson’s/ et al

–Not recovering from cancer/ AIDS/ Parkinson’s/ et al

–Finding your faith

Now, before anyone leaps down my throat, as I write this a very dear friend is going through chemo and radiation therapy because he had a bunch of cancerous material removed from his neck. I’ve got two sets of friends who just had their first child within the past week and another who are expecting twins within the month. This summer I lost my grandmother and the cat I’ve had for sixteen years within 36 hours of each other.

Are all of these powerful, emotional events? Without a doubt.

Are they story-worthy?

Probably not.

See, here’s the thing. Hundreds of people are diagnosed with cancer every week, probably dozens with the exact same variety my friend Tony has. Babies are born by the bucket load every hour and, if the census is to be believed, people die at about half that rate. It’s awful to think of, but most animal shelters end up gassing a few hundred cats every week.

So why are the versions of these events I mentioned above any different? Why are they special?

Well, because they happened to me, of course. It sounds silly to say but we all see the world through our own perspective. These events are powerful–to me. They elicit a strong emotional response–from me. Some of them will linger with me forever– the rest of my life.

To most of you, though, these are just dry facts. As we said before, birth, death, and illness aren’t exactly rare anywhere in this world. I’m sure most of you have a certain degree of empathy–you’d be lousy writers if you didn’t– and that you have some honest congratulations/ well-wishes/ sympathy for what I’ve said above, but in reality it’s just stuff you file away and move on. It’s only been half a page, but how many of you can remember how long I had my cat for?

There’s a saying I’ve brought up here before– “Tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a hole and die.” This little bit of black humor is usually pointed at would-be-comics, but I want to use the inverse. To wit…

This story may be extremely powerful and dramatic to you, but to me it’s just silly nonsense.

This is why so many of these thinly-fictionalized stories don’t work and make readers roll their eyes. The writer hasn’t grasped that basic empathic truth, that these events don’t have an emotional weight past what was personally experienced. Again, it’s absurd that I have to point this out, but it’s more absurd how many people don’t get it. Real stories about family and friends are generally not good for the same reason family and friends don’t make good critics when you need feedback. You’re too close. It’s like when I mentioned game scripts a while back. It may be the most amazing night of Warhammer 40K you and your friends have had in months, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to make for a good story. It seems cool because you experienced it.

I’d never say you can’t make it with one of these stories, but if it’s the way you’re leaning you may want to stop and reconsider. No one will ever convince me losing the Terrible Cookie Monster wasn’t powerful and tragic. I know better than to write a book about it, though.

Don’t be surprised if a little white and black cat shows up in one of my books, though.

Next time, I’d like to address the negativity that so often runs through my little rants here.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Avoiding Reality”

And yet, a real writer can take this and write a very good book. I never knew know Joan Didion personally and knew nothing about her late husband when I read "The year of magical thinking", but it is one of the most powerful books I have put my eyes on. Of course, this doesn't mean it wouldn't have worked if it was a work of fiction, which kind of proves your point, but I know deep inside it wouldn't have been the same. Knowing that she really went through it all was, to me, a very important part of the experience.

A great example, Sebastian, even if it blurs the fiction/non fiction line I spoke of. And a great point. A real writer, a very good writer, can take a true story and tell it in an effective way, even if they fictionalize it.

The point I was trying to make, though, as I've said before, is that true stories are not automatically good stories. More so, a story that happens to you should be even more suspect than one that happened to someone else because, well, you're too close.

I'd never say it can't be done because it has been done and I'd be an idiot for ignoring history. But in my experience far too many people are making the default assumption of "it really happened to me and made me cry, therefore it's Oscar/Nobel/Pulitzer-worthy."

Thus, this week's rant… 😉

I agree with this for the most part. I think trying to fictionalize a true event–an event that's close to you–usually doesn't work because you ARE so close to it, so close that you can't be emotionally objective. Perhaps a great writer could make it work, but I think true perspective in fiction comes through observation and a 'what if' empathy. I think this is the true art: making sense of something or attempting to understand something that isn't necessarily your own. When a writer is able to do this well, the appeal of the work becomes universal(universal because the situation has been observed in OTHER people, people that are not you . . . if that makes sense). 🙂

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