Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Awful Truth

It takes balls to let truth win out when writing.

This is as true for fiction as for non-fiction-- people can become very upset by the true actions of a fictional character. Whether the character is doing something that they themselves did in the past and are ashamed of, saying something they don't want said because it may influence children, or doing something they are afraid someone will do to them, a character that behaves realistically can be scary.

I recall two incidents that impressed this on me, in a visceral way. The first occurred during the course of a semester-long fiction workshop in college. One of my classmates was a woman in her late 30's, early forties; good as far as the nuts & bolts of writing were concerned, but she spent the entire semester reworking the same piece, and it wasn't a compelling story even in the beginning, when the subject was fresh. It was essentially a story about a marriage in trouble-- the friend of the wife is trying to find out where the trouble has come from. In some versions, it was the wife herself, or sometimes a sister-in-law, but in all of them she doesn't understand why the husband in the marriage has cheated. Every rewrite, even when the author said it was a different story, had the same problems in the dialogue and the characters' motives, and in each discussion afterwards she was stymied by the comments, and looked for different reactions from us, towards the husband and his actions. It struck me that she was trying to reason away infidelity, make some kind of logical talisman against it. If she could make the husband in the story see that it was unnecessary, then it needn't have happened-- there, or more importantly, in reality.

 This is not to suggest that my classmate had been cheated on personally-- I have no idea, but she had clearly been shaken up by some case of infidelity, and in her stories, she was virtually trying to undo it, for good and all. And each of her story versions suffered from her inability to let the truth, unpleasant as it was, come through her character's actions. Yet she couldn't hide from herself that infidelity happens, and that it can cause hurt to good people. She just kept trying to figure out the logic of an act that she refused to approach from the perspective of those who might commit the act. I often wonder if my classmate ever learned to separate her own needs from her stories.

 You can't get away with writing only what you wish would happen in an ideal world, if you're going to write fiction that rings true now.

 The second incident also centers on infidelity. One day, chatting with the mother of the family I was working for, I mentioned that I had seen the movie Unfaithful, with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. She asked what I thought of it, and apart from the fatalistic ending, I felt it showed most of the sides of a certain type of extramarital affair pretty well-- the compulsion of illicit sex, and how it works on people. I've avoided being part of such an affair myself, but I won't say I've never been tempted, or approached for such; and I certainly have known many women, and men, that did have affairs. I've heard their stories, heard the lines used, seen the patterns. It's funny how standardized the pattern of conversations within those relationships tend to be.

 My boss, however, was horrified by the film, from her expression, and seemed to momentarily lose respect for me due to my opinion.  She thought it was completely unrealistic, or said that-- but as I questioned her to find out why, underneath her protest I detected again the fear of such a reality, and the need for a talisman to ward it away from her own life. If I had agreed with her, it might have been comforting enough to ease the fear. As I hadn't, it almost made the prospect of infidelity-- lush and ravenous infidelity-- more real, and therefore, more possible.

 In each of these incidents, there is an irrational impulse at work, that makes the person want to push away and reject the truthful use of infidelity in a fictional story.

 But you cannot rid the world of infidelity by refusing to imagine yourself or your husband giving in to it, by not understanding the unreasonable reasons for it, nor by forcing your cheating character to see how great his wife is, after he cheats on her. Infidelity happens despite good wives and good husbands, despite children, despite the damage to trust, despite the social or financial inconvenience or embarrassment it can cause. The only person you can absolutely stop from being unfaithful is yourself. That's all the control we're granted, and it's not equally easy for everyone.

 The truth, here, could be anything besides cheating: hunger, war, poverty-- or lovely things, such as the kindness of strangers, the beauty of young women, the taste of good tea. Doesn't matter. What matters is, if it's the true object or meal or action you character would have or take, let them take it. If it's what they want to say, let them say it-- don't hold back out of politeness, correctness, or fear. Don't force your morality onto a character like a saddle on a horse, and don't be afraid to let good things, or bad things happen, if they come from an honest place. There are readers that will reject your story for being too true, but the story will stand better, and you'll be able to tell how close you've gotten to reality, by the discomfort caused in some circles.

 I learned, again, not long ago, that writing the truth in non-fiction can be dicey, too. You can lose friends by speaking your mind, however tactfully, on a subject dear to a person's heart. You can be jailed for it, some places; and today, on International Blasphemy Rights Day, I'm here to tell you not to give in to that bullshit. We shouldn't make laws that constrict our free speech, and we shouldn't bow down to the false correctness that says tolerance means an absolute horror of giving offence.

 Offensive things need to said, sometimes, to keep more offensive things from happening. Lose a few chickenshit friends, if you have to, but write honestly, write bitingly, write so that it matters. Don't apologise for it, either-- you can be sure that I won't.

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