Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of a writer?
I’m going to allow my blog to morph this year. Up to this point, http://cakabala.wordpress.com , has merely been a convenient repository for things I’ve written—songs, personal essays, experimental memoir-esque storytelling from social media sources, and such. Not much readership, although I certainly appreciate those who have stopped by.
But, now I think I’ll archive most of that in favor of developing a theme and a purpose. I will be focusing (I think) on memoir-based historical fiction striving to become literary fiction. I’ll be learning the ropes as I go, so to speak, so bear with me.
“Spicing things up a little bit” has always been tempting.
In a scene from the early 60’s sitcom, Leave It To Beaver, young Theodore (the “Beaver”) Cleaver decided his mother’s story of having been fired from a book store, because she messed up the receipts, wasn’t exciting enough for his assigned composition, so he described her instead as a chorus line dancer who performed in beer joints for a notorious gangster until she married Ward Cleaver, the tap dancer. The trouble wasn’t his imagination. It was his trying to pass it off as history.
In A Million Little Pieces, the writer, James Frey, marketed his tale as a memoir. It resulted in a sort of media scandal when it was discovered that he had greatly exaggerated significant sections of the book. Again, the trouble wasn’t his imagination, or intent (to help other addicts), but that he told lies, and called them facts.
Mark Twain once used the term, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, in referring to the persuasiveness of exaggeration. What may start off as a boring memoir, that even family members avoid reading, somehow morphs inside the writer’s mind to become the American tough guy story. Americans love their tall tales. They just don’t like being suckered.
In Beaver’s case, the kids all knew he was making it up, but they didn’t care, because it was more creative than their own stories. In James Frey’s case, the public was incensed because they were told to be incensed. All of his humiliation could have been avoided if he had just turned his work into a novel instead.
I do find it ironic, however, that journalists get so carried away with the vetting process, and the relentless finger-pointing persecution that follows. Who among us believes everything they read in a memoir? Look deeply enough at the motive behind the expose, and I suspect that it usually comes down to money, more than morality; first for the author who initially stretches the truth, then for the journalist who uncovers the lies, and then for the talk show hosts who air the egregious scandal.
Really now, doesn’t there come a time for caveat emptor? Aren’t we, the readers, at least partly culpable when we allow mob consciousness to determine our outrage? Literary novelists often write with visions of creating masterpieces that impact in profound ways, and change lives forever. It is their intent. In their effort to do so, they fabricate.
A recent American Masters episode, on PBS, examined the life of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird. One of the commentators spoke of the transition from an author’s real world to the fictional worlds they create.
I first came, over the years, to a realization, that I bet is true of Harper Lee as well, …you know, you start with who and what you know. It’s sort of like, take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you, shaped you, and then you begin to lie about it. You, you tell one lie that turns into a different lie, and after awhile those models sort of lift off, become their own people, rather than people you originally thought of…and when you weave an entire network of lies, what you’re really doing, if you’re aiming to write literary fiction, I think what you’re, what you’re really doing is, by telling lies, you’re trying to arrive at…a deeper truth.
Novelists have been granted a freedom that their journalistic counterparts have not. Label something “fiction”, and you are allowed to “create”. Label it “fact”, and you may be vilified. So, as this blog progresses, this year, I shall be examining the process of morphing family histories into novels. That means changing names, inventing characters, and rounding out the details (putting flesh on the bones). The “deeper truth” toward which historical fiction sometimes strives, is a destination that will not be often reached, but the end result of a tale well told is better than being called a liar.