Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Truth in Fiction

In the blog Steve Mitchell and I write together, I disagreed yesterday with almost everything he had written in his last post. 
He had quoted David Mamet, whose words I distrust for many reasons, not least his book, The Old Religion, about the infamous Leo Frank case. My former husband’s great-uncle was the trial judge in that case. He had hired his nephew, my former husband’s father, as his pistol-packing bodyguard. Many books have been written about that case, many films made. Mamet’s version was so inaccurate (he even got the murder date wrong) that I fantasized for several months about going to Atlanta to do my own research and writing a rebuttal. 
The question that Steve raised, however, is about truth in writing. And, by extension, in all art. 
When we manipulate character and dialogue, plot and structure, aren’t we “conning” (Mamet’s word) the reader?
“Manipulate”originally meant extracting silver by hand. It later came to mean handling anything with skill and dexterity. It’s present connotation is more cynical - the “manipulative” handling of people, for example.
Here’s the problem: No more than 30% of the words we use in everyday conversation convey our full meaning. The standard demonstration of that truism is to ask the disbeliever to say, “I love you,” through gritted teeth. Janet McCann demonstrates it more beautifully in her poem, “Writing a Paper on Silence,” in which she lists many different silences, including “the missed beat before ‘I love you, too’ that says everything.”
If I hear a funny or poignant exchange in the supermarket, I quickly haul out my notebook and write down the exact words before I forget them.. When I read off those words to someone else, I act out what I heard and saw, imitate the voices, wave my arms for the listener. When I try to share that experience with a reader, the exact, “true” words will fall flat without the accompanying body language and inflection. For a reader to laugh or sigh over that incident, I have to change the words, or add material - perhaps something that was not present in the original incident, but nevertheless is as close to the truth as I can manage.
Knowing, as I do so, that my experience in the supermarket was mine alone, poured through the colander of my biography, my truth. 

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