Friday, May 13, 2011

Lies in the Name of Truth

I apologize for the delay in posting this today, but Blogger was "Unavailable" for the past 24 hours!

I love the women I blog with here at Novel Matters. Really love them. They are all amazing women, amazing writers, and have much wisdom and experience to share on the craft of writing -- and on life in general. Katy's Tell the Whole Truth post on Wednesday was excellent. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you'll take a moment to do so.

Patti has been going through Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird the past few weeks, and most recently covered the chapter on Characters. In that chapter, and in keeping with Katy's topic, Anne gives us this wonderful nugget regarding truth in fiction:

"This brings us to the matter of how we, as writers, tell the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It's a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. I suppose the basic moral reason for doing this is the Golden Rule. I don't want to be lied to; I want you to tell me the truth, and I will try to tell it to you."

It's very important that we stay true to our characters in telling their stories. By that I mean they must stay true to themselves under our watchful writer's eye if they're to be believed. We must have their temperaments, their quirks, their fears, their desires, their likes and dislikes firmly in mind in order to assure that we don't misrepresent them or blur the edges of who they are in our readers' minds to help them accomplish that. Ms. Lamott says, "You probably won't know your characters until weeks or months after you've started working with them ... Just don't pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don't. Stay open to them." To that I say Amen! The more time we spend with our characters, the better we'll know them and the more of themselves they'll reveal to us. There are all kinds of ways we can jar our readers out of our story world, and having a character act out of character is certainly one of them.

Katy wrote in her post about truth, "Make your darkness dark, but make your brightness bright as well." Absolutely right on. I would add, make the darkness equal to the character's nature and situation, otherwise it will come across as melodramatic. In my early days of writing I had no problem making the brightness bright, but I went to great lengths to keep the darkness at bay, to present my protagonist as upright as possible. Again to quote Anne Lamott, "[characters] shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting." Thinking back on the first novel I wrote, I can heartily agree with Anne. My protagonist was unreasonably reasonable, much too forgiving, acquiescing to the nth degree, and b-o-r-i-n-g. She had no known vices or foibles, and was too good to be true in the most literal sense.

I don't think that's the case with my latest protagonist. I took her (and myself) into that "white-hot center" Robert Olen Butler talks about in From Where You Dream, as I spent two years writing about the unendurable loss of a child. "I've got lots of ways of staying out of there," Butler says, and so do I. But to write this novel I had to revisit that white-hot place time after time, drawing from my own experience. There were many days I looked for any excuse not to sit down to this story, preferring grout-cleaning to writing. But I'd have been unfaithful to the truth had I diminished the darkness. Any reader would have seen that immediately, and as Anne points out, a reader doesn't want to be lied to.

What have you written that has taken you to that white-hot center? Or have you done your best to avoid it in your writing as I did once upon a time?


Kathleen Popa said...

It seems that everything I write finds its way to that white-hot center one way or another. You really do feel exposed, when you realize you've written about personal matters, and sent them into the world. But I find that it is exactly those parts of my stories that hurt me the most that people tell me mean the most to them. The most personal is the most universal. Deep calls to deep.

It's exactly for this reason, Sharon, that I think your latest novel will resonate with readers. It's your most personal yet, and I can sense how much it's cost you. But it is beautiful.

Nicole said...

Truth hurts deep. Sharon, you're a courageous writer and mother. God, it hurts to hear your visit to the white-hot place.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nicole. You're right: truth hurts deep.

Katy, thanks for helping define that place we have to go to in order to accomplish the truth in writing that we seek.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Sharon, I can't even begin to comprehend the loss you've suffered and how much it must have cost to revisit those painful memories as you write. You have a great strength of spirit. I hope that in some way the writing has helped you heal.

The book I'm writing currently has been very personal for me, although on a far less devastating level. A persistent thread throughout the book deals with mother-daughter relationships, and my protagonist's mother suffers from a mental illness. Although that's where the similarity with my mother ends, I've still felt vulnerable as I write. I don't want to cause hurt to those I love most, but I also feel driven to explore the issues that shaped me as I grew up.

Sharon said...

Perhaps I've hidden from the white hot place. I may treat myself as an observer rather than a participant of the white hot place. I identify with it so you can tell I've got it__ but...

This from your non-fiction faithful reader. Thought provoking.

I respect you Sharon

Megan Sayer said...

Karen: you too huh?
I'm sure we're living the same life in different places.
We so need to have coffee some time : )

Heather Marsten said...

For me, I am exposed a lot, for I am writing a memoir, and have to point out the good/bad/and ugly side of myself, and some days when I write I wish I had a do-over.

What is hard is some of the events I'm writing about happened over thirty years ago, and while I'm writing true events, there are things that I adjust. For example, I don't remember therapist's names so I make them up, for a handfasting I don't remember the exact readings we did but I know the types of readings we did and I put those in so the reader can "see" the ceremony - it is true, but still I guess creative.

In writing I am finding that I had an angry spiteful side that I don't like very much, but I have to tell the truth. It is hard.


Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

Thanks for the encouragement to stick to the 'white hot center'. I've been avoiding my current WIP because it does cut very cloe to some abuse issues in my childhood that I really don't want to revisit.