Monday, September 10, 2012

Lies or truth

We had an interesting discussion in writing class the other night, a discussion stemming from John Gregory Brown's wonderful essay, "Other Bodies, Ourselves: The Mask of Fiction."  Most of Brown's essay seemed inarguable and long overdue when he published it in Julie Checkoway's Creating Fiction over a decade ago.  Brown's thesis is quite simple: As fiction writers we tend to avoid presenting in our novels and stories the facts of our lives; typically, we employ characters that in significant, meaningful ways are different from ourselves, characters with biographies that are all but alien from--and probably way more bizarre than--our own.   However (and here's the rub), even as we invent and extend these fanciful stories about people whose lives are so unlike are own, we may at the same time--certainly not always but at least some of the time--be literally laying ourselves bare for the whole world to see.  Does this sound like a contradiction?  Of course it does.  Because it is.  But it's also true.  As Brown explains, the contradiction is based in the fact that the author rarely if ever intends to lay himself bare or even realizes he is doing so.  Brown gives the example from his own career about a novel he was writing during the period that his wife gave premature birth to twins, one of whom did not survive and the other of whom had to remain in the hospital, strapped to machines, for several weeks running.  Early in the morning, he composed new sections of his novel, and then he and his wife made the long, sad drive to the hospital to visit their lone surviving child, the one kept alive by machines.   During these trips his wife read and commented on what Brown wrote that morning.  Brown explains that while he never realized it at the time, looking at the book now he sees nothing in his protagonist's inner life but the shock and grief he himself was struggling through then.  Understand, there is no dead baby and no sick baby in the protagonist's life, but her form of sadness is identical, Brown says, to his own at the time.  He wrote his life into the novel unconsciously and unintentionally.  But, I suppose, inevitably.

It's a common notion, and a true one, that a writer invests many of her characters with different pieces of herself, so much so that everyone in the story can be said to be a form of the writer even when they are extremely unlike one another.  I've heard this point made--it was made the other night by one of my students--and I understand it.  I've done just this thing myself many times, maybe every time.  But it's also a more conscious effort, and a more purposeful kind of kinship, than what Brown describes in "The Mask of Fiction."  Brown is talking about how the metaphors and parallels we subterraneously employ are truer  to the facts of our lives than any actual facts we could write.  I had an experience similar to Brown's several years ago with a story I wrote not long after my father died (tragically and accidentally).  The story features a former circus bear who lives in a big picture window at the front of a hardware store.  The hardware store owner sees this set-up as a kindness to the bear, whose career is over, its fame used up.  The narrator's father takes a shining to the bear and in the process takes a shining to the hardware store owner, a man he has never had much patience for.  But as the story winds down, the bear dies, upending at least three separate lives in the world of the story, leaving the picture window newly and nakedly empty.  Well, I swear to you that all I thought I was doing when I composed that story was taking a pleasantly perverse idea--an ex-dancing bear who lives in a hardware store window--and running with it to a dramatically satisfying end.  Not until I presented the story to a friend's class and answered questions about it did it hit me what I had been doing: writing down the raw shock of the loss of my father.  The story screams it; it's in every line.  But no one who does not know me privately would ever be able to see it.  Because I never intended to do it in the first place.

The question we finally got to in class, however, is even more sticky: Does such representation (really masking) count as a truth or a lie?  Brown repeats and repeats in the essay that oft cited claim: "fiction writers are great liars."   That notion has never sat very well with me, and I'm in a mindset now where, as much as I love Brown's essay, I think he's completely wrong on the point.  It's not a lie if I'm telling you from the get-go that what you're reading is a story.   If I call something a "short story" when I present it to a magazine that means something significant to me, and the reader is to blame if the reader assumes that the specific events of the story really happened.  A lie, by definition, is a purposeful deception.  There's nothing purposeful in the deceptions of fictions, which can't be counted as deceptions anyway but mutually agreed upon fabrications.  Besides, I try to suggest above, the most deeply deceived person can be the fiction writer himself.  Often times when we study stories in my classes, my students will ask "Did this really happen?" Or they might say "This reads like a memoir not a fiction" (which usually just means that it is a first person narrative).  In response I say the same thing to them every time: "I cannot tell you if any of this is factually true.  But the textbook--or the magazine or the story collection--has identified this piece as 'fiction,' which means that is how the author identified it.  I am going to respect that designation and assume every single thing in the piece is imaginary unless told otherwise."   And what I added the other night, and meant from the very bottom of my heart, was this: "It's the writer of narrative nonfiction who tells a hundred lies on every page--way more lies than any fiction writer ever will--because the writer of nonfiction claims her essay to be factually true when as writers we know that many details, even those from our own lives, especially those from our own lives, must be invented.  Memory itself is an invention."  As for the broader and deeper and more naked truths about the author that his fiction reveals, I tend to stay silent, because that's not what the student is really asking when he asks, "Did this really happen?"  As for those truths, as Brown's essay shows, all one can say is this rather unhelpful this: No it never happened; it never happened at all; it actually happened a lot worse.


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