Thursday, August 13, 2009

F&M Week Day Two: Truth and Stuff

INTERN was going to get started right away talking about the role of truth in fiction, but last night INTERN's roommate dragged her to a crowded open mic and bought her a beer, and several woozy fiction-related revelations ensued relating to music.

So: music it is.

The first person to play at this open mic was this skinny sixteen-year old kid with a guitar that weighed more than he did, and when he took the stage there was this frisson through the mostly 20-something audience, tangible hope that this unsullied young child-master would pull enlightenment down from the heavens and blow everyone's dome. He was young enough to speak truth. Watching him tune his axe was terrifying and nerve-wracking. Would he bring it?

Unfortunately, speaking truth is exactly what he did. To the tune of a seven-minute, structureless, vaguely melodic monologue about how he had a crush on this girl (Name: Cassie. Age: 16. Favorite band: Fall-out Boy. Baseline Facial Expression: Cruel but so beautiful at the same time) and she didn't notice him standing behind her at the beach (Weather: Sunny, in a cruel kind of way. User demographic: Beautiful but cruel teenage girls) and then he rode home on his bike and cried in the basement thought about how sad his parents' lives were ("They just watch TV shows all the time while eating cheetos"), and had the life-changing realization that he would never love anyone else, even after the summer was over and they started 11th grade (State of singer's Heart: Torn into a million shards).

It was all completely true. But that didn't make the song meaningful, or interesting, or even tolerable to listen to. Hm.

The next guy who played was a little older, had facial hair, and wore the wool sweater/scruffy clamdigger combo favored by hipsters everywhere.

His song was about how he wanted to be a buffalo.

The basic premise of the song was the same—boy likes girl, girl doesn't notice boy—but instead of narrating the whole #^$%@ experience blow-by-blow, he just took the emotional truth of the situation and applied it to an imaginary situation, i.e. becoming a buffalo.

INTERN spent the rest of the open mic entertaining semi-tipsy musings on this phenomenon. Consider that Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide": "I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills/till the landslide brought me down." If Stevie Nicks had written a song that went "My dad said he'd stop giving me money and make me get a real job and it made me face some tough realities," people would bleed out their ears. As it is, she used the emotional truth instead of the literal truth. And it worked. Nobody's like "Landslide? Really? What's that all about, Stevie?" People just get it.

One thing that consistently alarms INTERN is that people hear the maxim "write what you know" and take it to mean "write about things that happened to you." This phenomenon probably accounts for 80% of slush-pile lifers.

Behold: Things that happened to you are just events—what you know is emotional truth. Truth = emotional truth. Yes!

Let's say you were raised in a boxcar by your schizophrenic uncle, and grew up believing a 1977 Schwinn road bike could read your thoughts.

That doesn't mean you have to write a novel about a kid with a cleverly different name than you who grows up in a boxcar with etc. etc. But you could write a damn good novel with characters who deal with feelings of isolation, shifting realities, and adversity. Growing up in a boxcar gave you special insight into these matters. And it's way more useful and productive to be an expert on emotions than on boxcars, no?

Similarly, memoirs risk becoming meaningless lists of Events That Really Happened if their authors neglect to examine the characters' inner events and realities. Nobody is going to read your memoir and say "Hey, you left out that time when you watched Air Bud with little Jimmy!" but people are sure as hell going to notice (and stop reading) if you leave out emotional truths. Even though memoirs deal with actual events, they're like fiction in that characters still need depth and some degree of transformation. And for that, you need truth.

So that's that.

INTERN apologizes for lecturing!


Update: Chapter Joust 2k9 is officially closed! INTERN will be up all night reading chapters and, um, making those pancakes.


  1. Now, you know you just made a lot of people swear and start crossing out their boxcar stories, don't you? Muttering: "The bike thing was gold, I tell you, gold!"

  2. What's this all about, Stevie?

    I love it when you lecture.

  3. Just finished an essay for a class, and resisted this thought for about 8 weeks, until today. I hate to say it, but there has to be a character transformation, even when the character is "I." Damn it.

  4. That's all very nice, but you could've just said: "I heard the fall-out boy sing of love, 'til the buffalo stampeded me down."

  5. I really appreciate the "Landslide" example.

  6. Good points. It reminds me a little of what Stella Adler, the great acting teacher, used to say about the difference between the Truth of Life and Truth on the Stage. The Truth of Life is boring, she said, but the Truth on the Stage is heightened. She said that most of us lead little lives, but to play a king or a queen, we need to lift up our lives to get to the Truth of the character. We need to give it "Size."

  7. Do you mean, like, Big Truth... like, Death?

    Or something like, ya know, frogs have water-tight asses!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  8. I'm glad you had that beer. Excellent post.

  9. Love your blog, and this post might possibly be my favorite. Well, this and the one about refrig magnets and that one about whether writers revise their memoirs and...

    Yeah. Anyway, thanks for sharing your insights on music and truth and fiction.

    :-) Cheryl

  10. Uh, what if we have been listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails lately?

  11. OK, so now *I* need a beer, and it's not even 10 AM. Sigh. I loved that utterly true, cut-to-the-bone statement,"...people hear the maxim "write what you know" and take it to mean "write about things that happened to you." GAHH! Can I just say I mostly totally loathe memoirs? Mostly.

    People, I know we are all the heroes of our own lives, but really, most of the time, my hero doesn't care so much if you had cold cereal for breakfast or got all unconventional and put papaya on your oatmeal.

    On the other hand, a very elderly resident at the nursing home where my SO volunteers offered him a tiny little book he'd self-pubbed. It's written as a small self-help book for men learning to cope with being a widower, based on his own experiences. Woven between the lines of this innocous looking book is a love story that had me sobbing my eyes out (since, of course, I already knew the ending). Quite by chance, I'm sure, this unsung, accidental writer had told the truth. The real, emotional truth. And it was lovely.

  12. Rats! I missed out on Chapter Jouza! That's what I get for failure to read for a few days. Oh well. Next time.

    Great post, though.

  13. "I heard the fall-out boy sing of love, 'til the buffalo stampeded me down."


    What's it all about, Stevie, indeed!

  14. Emotional truth or not, I'd read that bike/boxcar story.

    And I want to hear the buffalo song.

    What about a novel of a heartbroken 16-year-old and a buffalo roaming the world singing songs in hopes of attracting their father, a bicycle, to come back to them? I'm thinking "The Road" meets "August Rush" as written by Doctorow. (

  15. Sorry for the silliness. It's all the showtunes I'm listening to today.

  16. Hey Intern. Do you think Lies have a place in fiction too? Cuz sometimes Truth is too depressing, and sometimes people just want a happy ending where good triumphs and the nerdy hero gets the girl.

  17. I find it ironic that to become an English teacher, I had to demonstrate a profound understanding of Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Keats, and Ovid among many other literary geniuses. Study, study, study. Find deeper meanings. Go beyond the surface to recognize how the literature speaks to the soul.

    Why did I have to study the literary greats? So that I could spend the rest of my life reading essays, stories, and lovelorn poetry written by skinny sixteen-year-old kids who write without depth.

    And they wonder why I want to get out of teaching and establish myself as a writer...

  18. Hear, hear! Thanks for lecturing, Intern.

  19. I'm taking a creative writing class this semester, and we met for the first time yesterday. The instructor made a big point of telling us that we will not be permitted to write "jon-re fiction," that our stories have to be about "real people."

    Which led the guy behind me to ask, "So, like... people we know?"

  20. I love this series! I wish it would last more than a week.

    I've always hated the whole, "write what you know" cause I also thought it meant "write about things that happened to you." I thought that was stupid. But this post has been a real eye opener.

    But you know, I think some writers do it unconsciously. They insert the emotional truth they've experienced in life without realizing it.

    After reading this entry, I had a weird moment. Like "Oh! That's why character is going through such and such..." It's worlds different from what happened to me, but its the same emotional experience and it was like my subconsciousness really wanted to write a story about it.

    That's so enlightening.

  21. The advice to "write what you know" is indeed often abused! It is super ambiguous. But I agree with what you say about emotional truths.

    I'm surprised you're so positive about memoirs though - don't some that come in just stink of "ordinary person boring"? Seems like everyone thinks their own life is worthy of commercial publication. Maybe that's cynical of me but I'm just curious...

  22. Where is E.T. in MOBY DICK? Where?!

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