Thursday, July 11, 2013

Truth Is Harder Than Fiction

My apartment is pretty fucking clean right now.  And it's after one in the morning.  If you read my last blog post, you will understand how hard it was just to sit down and write this thing.

The Heart of the Matter

I left my wife three months and fifteen days ago.  If you haven't been through it, you don't know how incredibly shitty that sort of thing can be.  I remember sleeping on our couch those nights before moving out for good and imagining myself writing an Academy Award winning screenplay about a man who wakes up in his shitty-ass apartment on the bare floor the day after he leaves his wife and then decides to write a screenplay about it.  I imagined it would be something of the grandeur of Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, but with the dramatic feel of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

I already had things I wanted to write-in that happened to our character, and of course, my own experiences to come were to be a living research project for the film.  Well, as it turned out, there's not a lot I'd like to share about it.  The truth is definitely stranger than fiction but it's also harder to tell.  Hollywood inadvertently demands a certain level of "gloss" over everything in order to make people buy movie tickets, in order to put something enticing in the trailer.

I watched Silver Linings Playbook a few months ago, alone, in my shitty-ass apartment.  Probably my favorite movie of last year.  Awesome.  Moving.  Etc.  But you can't help but feel that the story was so removed from the way things really happen.

Flannery O'Connor

A lot of courage goes into writing from reality.  The fiction writer cannot escape it because his fantasies, however connected to the real world, are still in reference to what he sees and knows.  But the non-fiction writer has to answer to nitty-gritty, cold stare of the truth.

When I was in college I read every word published that was written by Flannery O'Connor.  She is a unique gem in the literary world.  I highly recommend her work.  I was glued to it.  My sister turned me onto her stuff because she kept raving about it and even wrote her bachelor's thesis on her.  I remember my sister telling me that O'Connor would often base her vivid, grotesque yet normal fictional characters on people she had met or knew around where she lived.  And sometimes these people caught on, as her work became famous during her lifetime, that they were being photographed in a literary sense in a very unflattering way, and let her know about it.

There is a story of an artist who was commissioned to paint the royal entourage.  (Tell me who if you remember; I, after all my Art History classes, do not.  Father Antonio would have a fit.)  Anyway, the boy paints all of them as they are, one by one; but each one, after seeing the painting, instructs the young artist to repaint them but to make them look better than they really are.  He does, but keeps the other version.  As the story goes, the king finally sees the finished product and comments on how far from reality the painting is.  The boy chimes in:

"Well, I did keep my original painting," he says.  The king sees the realistic work of art and orders that one to be displayed in the royal court, much to the dismay of all involved.  However, the truth prevailed, and the truth was told.

Percy Bysshe Shelley once said, "Beauty is truth, and truth beauty: that is all ye need to know on earth; that is all there is to know."  My favorite films and books are all those that most ring true.  Even if it is fiction it can display profound insight into reality.  That stuff strikes a chord in my heart.  I believe it does in all of us.

A Meeting of the Minds

The best thing I ever wrote was a story about a friend of mine I knew when I was growing up and working on a farm.  It was passed around in college almost as a great work of literature.  I was very proud.  However, the very day I found it published online by one of my well-intentioned friends who wanted to get me a little popularity and share my great work, I emailed the webmaster of the site and told them to take it down immediately.  The piece was true except the end, since there had to be an end and I wrote the ending in the future to complete the plot; and my friend has kids, and he was my friend, so I couldn't do it.  I couldn't publish that.  What was true - how he had hurt someone else (not me, for the record) - wasn't anything I wanted his kids to find out from my story.  But the events, nonetheless, forever left an imprint on my soul.

I don't think I ever will write what happened in the last three and a half months.  It is far too painful and would hurt many people I care about, my children included.  My conscience is clear but still there are things that don't fit in spaces where words go.  Writers know what I'm talking about.

A writer walks the earth differently than other men.  He is an emotional connoisseur: he records his feelings as he goes, sometime wallowing in them to get to some catharsis that more often than not never comes.  It is not a masochistic habit, it is an artistic one.  The writer becomes a prophet, a historian, a teacher.  "If you do this, this will happen to you," etc.  They call it "the moral of the story."  And we deal in stories.  It is our lifeblood, and we are like vampires.

There is a beautiful moment - it doesn't happen all the time - when a writer looks at his work and hears the ringing sound of truth in it.  It is an overwhelmingly invasive noise, yet warm and soothing.  It makes him clench his teeth and feel: "I've got something really good here; I've made something really good."  It could be a work of fiction, but the truth rings out in it.  And he knows he is done.  And will sleep well that night.


  1. Whoa. What you mean by "truth" is facts, or data. But they aren't truth (as any long-time newspaperman can tell you) by themselves. They have to be shaped into stories (which MAY be non-fiction, like a lawyer's closing argument) to become truth. This is why THE ILIAD has been heard and read for 10,000 years and the latest archeological report from Troy interest no one.

  2. From our LinkedIn discussion:

    It's two-fold: the facts, then the feeling that comes from everything working together. I can't think of the right words here. Like showing "this is good" and "this isn't" and it feels true to me and the audience. I can leave the facts out or change the names. I read that Mark Twain used to weave true stories together into his so that the events that followed - though extraordinary - still felt right, because they had really happened. But the reader didn't know that. They didn't need to. It just felt ok.

  3. Facts are the tent poles of stories. The circus tent, and all the fun within--that's fiction, and the truth, and what readers come for.

  4. Joe: Great post. I am sure all who read appreciate your honesty, and the versatility of your writing. Keep up the great work.