Sunday, 15 April 2007

Theme: TRUTH

Some more KB course notes.

When we talk about truth in writing, we do not mean “factual truth”. When a writer protests “but it really happened” it’s usually in response to criticism of the story. Hang on to the fact that real events hardly ever feel true.

One truth is the writer being truthful internally. He begins to write about a fictional marriage, realises that his story has taken him towards using a truth, some partially-real event, where (let’s use a crude example) he once coerced someone into sex. He becomes aware of guilt, an uncomfortable feeling, so changes the event to be more “palatable”.

This isn’t merely losing the truth. This is lying, cheating, distorting your very essence. If things rise up in your writing that make you feel horror or revulsion or guilt embrace them. They contain dynamic power, true weight and velocity. It is bad skirting the issue, even worse to stop writing, but to change it, that’s a sin, and as long as you do it, you will never write well.

Some of you have expressed concern when listing some of your demons. You “just don’t want to go there” or “people will not want to know my sordid secrets”.

Well, first, understand there is no absolute reason why you “must” use a real event. When we talk of truth we do not mean confession.

There may well be times when, effectively you will feel “for once” you are being honest and ‘telling it like it is”, but that does NOT have to be the case.

If certain events at a time in your past make you uncomfortable, I do not require you to prostrate yourself, wear sack-cloth and ashes or self-flagellate.

What matters is you FEEL these things. You go to the places where huge swelling elements of psychological power loom, swell up, and dominate your thinking, shape your everyday interactions.

Let me use a not-that-uncommon example of parentage. Perhaps you were fostered or you discover that “Daddy” wasn’t your real father. There are many possible combinations. It is highly likely that these fundamental facts about your early life DEFINE you. It may be that in some ways they severely limit you, even create at certain times crippling inhibitions.

Many writers misinterpret their teacher’s exhortations to “go there, work with it”. They react defensively. They “can’t do it”. They’ll be wrecked. It will “fuck them up”. That stuff is behind them. They worry about Pandora's Box.

But I am not interested (directly) in THEIR experiences. I do not CARE about their foster mother who drank or the real father who was violent. Very often “going there” if we go there directly, specifically, results in stilted work, crippled writing.

No, the trick is NOT to write about YOUR fostering, but to write "FICTION" about foster parents, lost children. People who are NOT you. I’d go so far as to say that the fiction will ALWAYS be stronger than stuff you call fact.

What we want to access is not the actualities, not the distorted memories, the layers of lies and adjustments. Instead, by writing “freely” about some other kid what we might get is (bulging out from within, through the prose) the truth of the PAIN.

It’s the pain, the pressure, the denials we use, NOT by confessing them but by articulating through angles. I, real, a boy, was left by a mother. I write perhaps of a man who left a girl. I USE my aches, use the dynamics, allow my voices to speak, let the hum come through. I’m relieved to be writing fiction and not worrying about MY life, but it’s the COLOUR of my life that comes through and strengthens the work.

Sometimes we can gain strength and power from openly REFUSING to speak, but by articulating the refusal and talking “away” from the subject (provided we have admitted the basic stance) we allow the reader to pick up the vibes, to articulate and amplify them.

One example of this is my story Not About Her Father.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. She writes about a fox.

The fox, it smells a little. It trots across ash, a black, com-stubbled field, heading for a thorn hedge. It sees, far-off a tractor, a driver, a ruddy man, oblivious, facing the wrong way, birds wheeling.

The fox, its stink, reaches the hedge. It urns, head low, haunches lifted, a gentle trot, tongue lolling, sniffing, waiting.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father.

She writes about sea-lions, walruses. She writes about shingle beaches, great fat, blubbery animals, slapping, banging into each other, deep roars, bang, bang, slap-slap, the blood, the splatter, fodder for Attenboroughs, flashed blood, weight, roars, the males, the males, until just one, the heaviest, the most determined.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. She writes about the fox.

The fox sees a pheasant, but the pheasant is in the open. The fox wonders if he can cross the field and kill the pheasant, but the sky is blue, the light is good, there is the tractor and its ruddy man. He will be seen.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. She writes for magazines.

She writes of Henry, he with the startling blue eyes. She writes of Sandra, misunderstood, trying to make a new life. She writes of chance meetings in gentle cafes, of hands touching accidentally, apologies, laughter, and of small obstacles and then, wonderful endings.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. Instead, when she writes, she writes to town councillors. She is severe. She writes about improper practices, about holes in the road and careless pavements, of danger, of old people who might break a limb. Did they know how many pensioners die after breaking a hip, do they?

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. When her class write to her, when they write for her, when they write, “Miss Hodges is firm but fair!” and when they write, “I will miss you Miss, here are some Quality Street, don’t eat them all at once.” She briefly wonders about their homes, about their fathers. But never has she said, “Today’s Essay, My Father!” She may ask for reflections on a cherry-stone, how to be a fish.

She may ask them, “Why is the sky blue, and is it blue at night?” She will suggest a mushroom, a teddy, to be a trifle, fly upside down in the rain, speculate. But please, no parent stories.

What she doesn’t do is write about her father. Not even as the fox, the sly, slow fox trots now, intent, for he knows where a mother buries her babies, where the rabbit hides and the kittens whimper, thinking that, beneath their earth they are safe. They mew in silence, but the sly, stinking fox will hear, he hears. He trots closer, glancing away to the tractor, the man, the sky, the spinning, cawing birds.

To be a mushroom, a jellyfish, to float and to sail, to not be a bucket, I’d fail as a pail. I will be a banana, a ticket, some cream, I will write class-room ditties. I will not hear a scream.

The fox, not her father, digs up the kittens. He kills six, he eats one. He trots away, blood on his face, the last, a live kitten whimpering.

This is a simple idea. We know by saying this is NOT about her father that the reader presumes it is, brings his own inversion processes to the story, his own assumptions. A brilliant writer might use “metaphors’ which truly were not MEANT to be metaphors. Now the reader’s distortions will create power and three-dimensionality. The act of metaphorical connection brings power.

We can approach painful, confusing areas sometimes by over-emphasising the opposite (like Not About Her Father) or as here in “A Wonderful Man”.

My father had soft red hair, drawn back flat in the fashion of the day, light blue eyes, and a boyishly-shy eyes-down, head-tilted, disarming smile. He was handsome, wiry, muscled, and of average height and build, and his hands and fingernails were broken by twenty years of hammering steel. This story is true and I have to tell you, my father, he was a wonderful man.

Here we take a convention, an understanding, that we rarely talk in literature so directly. We use the idea that “the lady doth protest too much”. By saying, “This story is true and I have to tell you, my father, he was a wonderful man.” We give the strongest hint possible that it's not true.

When real events drive us and we know we should access them (I talk of events we know well) but we find that the events always screw with the writing - then we need to play tricks on ourselves. It was a man, write about a woman. It was a mother, write about the father. It was in 1965, could it happen in 1995? It is often suddenly liberating to “transpose and transport” events, especially those involving real living people.

I have already mentioned that sometimes the key is to write a total fiction, but every time you pause to think, you think not of the fiction but of the ache of the real, how it felt and what it meant. You may instead not write directly of the traumatic events but of the person BEFORE the event or long after. For example, writing of a murder victim or a rape victim, or a woman losing children in a fire, but NOT writing about the fire, the rape, the murder can have a powerful “feel-of-the-coming-weight” effect. Often the perceived “bravery” of avoiding the actual incident will lend the reader great confidence, and a perverse, inverted “trust”.

An example of this might be, a “light” eventless ramble about JFK in Dallas a few hours before the assassination, or an inconsequential spat involving Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dunkin Donuts. The strength here comes from NOT needing to mention the gunshots, the book repository, the grassy knoll.

The thing to remember in all these stories is that the incidents are not as crucial as the humanity they expose. Remember that when you wonder whether to search deep in your heart. What you did and what you said MAY be of interest, but what it all MEANT universally, how what you felt translates, THAT is where true power lies.

UNIVERSAL TRUTHS (but not clichés)

When we read something powerful and it hits us primitively, in the gut, through the gut, at a level we know MEANS something, there is a profound sense of “rightness”. The truth here is like revelation like a glimpse of God, or “what it’s all about”. I think we get that in Hall’s The Ledge and in Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

There’s a profound sense of the author hitting a life-statement so perfectly that it’s like a beam of light through a dark cloud.

When we investigate our own deeper thoughts, our memories, repressions, problems it’s all too easy (if we can access them at all) to sermonise or lecture. Suddenly we are pontificating and the message that comes over is “This is important because it happened to ME.”

We see this with other people’s holiday snaps. We see it with stories of teen angst (written by teens) and stories of ‘the first time” or “I was abused”.

It isn’t that in the hands of another, these stories cannot be interesting or important. The problem is that all too often the writer is boring and self-obsessed. What they have failed to grasp is that we need to find the universality, the empathising moments. It isn’t YOU (or me) who matters, or the specifics of the event, but what we and the events (and our reactions) REPRESENT.

So it isn’t MY sad menopausal, trundling life that is the point. It is the tragedy of ALL sad menopausal, trundling lives (if indeed they are tragic.) We must get the universal FROM the individual. Tell me about what it is to be alive.

Tell me about the human condition.

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