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QUOTES NEEDED: The Truth of Writing Fiction
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I find myself one week away from talking to an auditorium full of people on "The Pursuit of Truth in Fiction." I was kindly invited by Santa Monica College to talk about and read my work as part of its literary series. I said, "I'd love to," and days later when I was asked "What is the title of your lecture?" I thought to myself, "Lecture?"

The first thing I did was attend a lecture at SMC by author David Ulin (The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith), who is also the Los Angeles Times book editor. The lecture was fabulous, connecting his interest in earthquakes to the shaking that goes in the culture, particularly literary culture.  (For a great podcast with David Ulin talking with novelist Michael Chabon, click here.)

What I learned from that and another lecture with playwright Brighde Mullins was to follow one's passion and be oneself. Thus I came up with the title, "The Pursuit of Truth in Fiction," which is what I see myself doing as an author.

It occurred to me, too, that I should come here and ask fellow writers, "How do you get to ‘truth' when you write? What is truth for you?"

As I'm starting to collect my thoughts, I couldn't help but flash on a few quotes from writers before me, in particular Ernest Hemingway, who said that to write, "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." He also said, "Write hard about what hurts." His most helpful advice, though, was "Develop a built-in bullshit detector."

Before I came across that last quote, I realized that what stops me in reading is when I stumble over something untruthful, some piece of bullshit that makes me throw the book across the room. When I go over my own work, I have to be honest with myself and flag what doesn't feel right. I don't want to throw my own book.

Before I pursued fiction as avidly as I'm doing now, I was a journalist who specialized in profiling authors and playwrights. I learned a lot from interviewing many writers. For instance, in my Writer's Digest interview with playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind), Mr. Lawrence said, "Write every day, keep at it, keep going, write new works of size and meaning... People are interested in people, the human animal."

Mr. Lee added, "You don't have to think in terms of plot. Think of what people do. Then they will weave their own plot. Plot is nothing more than what interesting people do."

Ray Bradbury told interviewer Frank Filosa that he writes a first draft as passionately and as quickly as he can. He says, "A story is only valid when it is immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it." I echo this thought when I tell my students to allow themselves to be mediocre in a first draft. Write a shitty first draft as your blood boils, and then you build from there. You cannot fake or rebuild passion. That first hot draft can be improved with craft.

Some other quotes from writers builds on this. "Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story," said F. Scott Fitzgerald.  "Observe, don't imitate," said poet and science fiction writer John M. Ford. Novelist George Moore said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Robert Frost added to that, "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."And I'll add onto that my notion that drama and humor should be in every work. Readers need oases. Thus, "No humor in the writer, no humor for the reader."

Perhaps the writer who has shaped me the most, however, is Tim O'Brien whose work has no humor. We're nothing if not contradictory creatures. His work of fiction, The Things They Carried, moved me and surprised me in a profound way. Perhaps his stories of being on the ground in the Vietnam War affected me because I was in the last year of the draft. I remember sitting in a dorm room at the University of Denver with a eight or nine young men watching the television as ping pong balls rolled in a spinning cage. One by one those 366 balls were withdrawn, and each ping pong ball had a birth date on it.

Basically the first one hundred birthdates represented the young men who were likely to go to Vietnam. When the ninth ball was revealed, someone in the room said, "Oh, shit." I never had to say that. Mine ball was number 220. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if my ping pong ball had been different.

The stories in The Things They Carried were stories of young men who were not as lucky as me. O'Brien himself had been an antiwar protester when he was drafted, and he writes that he went to Vietnam because he was a coward. That is, he wasn't brave enough to skip to Canada. His family and neighbors would look poorly on him. That kind of truth bowled me over.

In that book, he also writes about what stories are. He says, "Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."

Later in the book, in a story called "The Lives of the Dead," he writes about when he was nine, long before Vietnam, and he recalls a girl, Linda, his age, who had cancer. She was the first person he knew who died. He later willed her up in his head, and she told him, "Once you're alive, you can't be dead." It felt like a miracle to him, and after Vietnam, he wrote stories about the dead in his head, sometimes changing what actually happened to get to a deeper truth.

He writes, "I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else [in my stories] is invented. But it's not a game. It's a form ... I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes that happening-truth... What stories can do is make things present."

My stories are not about a huge traumatic time in my life. Rather, they are based on things I've experienced or things I've heard about and reimagined. Humor slips in because absurdity abounds, and if you can't laugh, then sticking your head in a gas oven like Sylvia Plath did might become a real possibility. 

I'm interested not in kings and queens, celebrities and presidents, but of the girl and boy down the street, the woman and man living life on the ground in Santa Monica where a big day might be a trip to the Santa Anita Mall--or racetrack. Critics sometimes compare me to Raymond Carver because we focus on ordinary people who discover their own truths for living. I'm not imitating. I'm observing. And I want to dive into the deep feelings we all have as we try to cope with life as we know it--the truth.

How do you make things present? What writers or people have influenced you? How do you find truth in your fiction? Feel free to write a comment below.

If you're in Los Angeles on December 1, you're invited to the lecture. It's at 11:15 a.m. in Lecture Hall HSS 165 at Santa Monica College, 1900 Pico Blvd. It's free and open to the public.  I'll be reading a little from my work and signing books afterwards.

Comments
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" my life would be different

" my life would be different if my ping pong ball had been different." So . . . you have the title for your memoirs.

"A book ought to be an icepick to break up the frozen sea within us." - Franz Kafka

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here are the three

Here are the three I live by, two from anne lamott and one from faulkner, in the below order:

Three hundred words a day and in a year, you have a novel.

A confused reader is an angry reader.

Kill your darlings.

Best of luck with the lecture! You will be brilliant.

Best J

Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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I find that to write a novel

I find that to write a novel of any kind, it really helps to be a bit of a smart-ass. I find it really helps to have some attitude you can project onto your characters that you wouldn't do in real life. Here's an example from Vengeance is Mine. :)

.... This left one remaining prospect, a rather nerdy, but unswervingly useful, young Chinese woman by the name of Lisa Tang. Venny concluded she had nothing to lose by giving the little twerp a call. Predictably, she answered on the second ring.

“Hello?”
“Hi. This is Vengeance Toy.”
“Venny! Is that really you?”
“No. I just thought I’d call someone up at random and tell them my name is Vengeance Toy.”
“Venny! It IS you! Where are you? How have you been?” She sounded tearful and happy.
“Same place, different day.”
“Oh. Well, I haven’t heard from you in ages. Are you in any kind of trouble?”
“Lisa! Why do you assume that just because I call you there has to be trouble?”
“A—hem.”
“Okay, Lisa. You got me there. Well, I’ll be honest. I am in a little bit of a predicament. I need to look for a job.”
“I thought you had a job.”
“I do. But I have to pretend I’m looking for a job. I could tell you, but then I’d have to...”
“I don’t even want to know. Eeesh! Why can’t any of my friends have normal lives?”
“It’s your destiny, Lisa. Now listen. I need to look like...uh...well...”
“...less like a bag lady?”
“You should be in the diplomatic corps. But yes; I think you have the picture.”
“Say no more. I think I can handle that. Whew! I thought you’d want me to do something—well—like you usually want me to do.”
“Lisa! You cut me to the quick. Would I ever put your pointy little butt in harm’s way?”
“Ahem.”
“Well, you can relax this time. Your role is strictly as a fashion consultant.”
“Well, you’re in luck. I have today off. We’ll run into town and fix you up. We’ll have you looking like a real spy instead of a bag lady spy in no time.”
“No can do. I need to stay in the house. I can’t be seen in public for a while.”
“Venny! How can we get you new clothes if we don’t, uh, go where the, uh, clothes are?!”
“You’ll figure it out, short stuff.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Eeesh!”
“Drop by here on your way and I’ll give you a wad of unmarked bills.”
“Don’t worry about that. Consider this my gift of gratitude for not putting my ‘pointy little butt’ in harm’s way.”

Eric

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Thanks, Eric

You make a good point. Another attitude to have is the belief that what you the author will and can finish a novel. Self-confidence has to be there at least some of the time. I look back on my early work and see that a naive sense of one's talents doesn't hurt.

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Dale and Jessica

Dale, I love that title! I doubt I'll ever write a memoir, but still, it's a good title. By the way, I like your new photo. It looks like you're standing near a Minnesota lake, though considering you live in Canada, I guess it's Canadian.

Jessica, your three quotes are great. The person reading my second draft of the novel I finished on Friday is telling me I have a tendency to overexplain at times. I worry so much about a confused reader. Still, I'll have to delete some things. Darling shooting is next on the list.

--Chris

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Truth Is A Must In Fiction

Here are a couple of quotes:

* Truman Capote was known for embellishing his experiences. When questioned, Capote responded, "Well, if it wasn’t true, that’s the way it should have been."

* Tom Clancy: "The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.

 I also wrote a blog here on RedRoom about truth in fiction : Truth Is A Must In Fiction .

Good luck!

 Talia Carner

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Magazine truth versus life

Talia, I loved reading your blog, learning from your career in the magazine world. My friend Sandra Tsing Loh some years ago was writing for women's magazines often, and I sensed from her that each piece had to offer optimism, hope, without spelling out any disasters. My wife and daughter love stocking up on women's magazines for flights across the country. All the beautiful pictures and sense of a life without problems is an innocuous pleasure. Men certainly have their fantasy magazines, too.

Your bigger point is that your fiction isn't running away from what the magazines steer away from. You offer truths.

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I wish I could come to the lecture

Chris, you're going to be great.

My shortest piece of advice for writers is that great writing comes from self-awareness. The writing students I could never help were the ones who couldn't see themselves clearly--so they certainly couldn't see the written expression of their self clearly.

Another thing I always talk about is that finishing is what seperates the professionals from the amateurs. You have to finish. And you don't finish a marathon by going over and over the first mile until you get it perfect, you run the whole thing as best you can. Value finishing over perfection--the former is possible, the latter isn't.

I hope you'll blog a transcript of it afterwards so we can all read it!

Ivory Madison
Founder and CEO, Red Room

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Wow!

Thank you, Ivory! In seeing the writing advice that's coming through in the comments I've received so far, part of what I'll deliver is the truth of the writing life. Otherwise, much of what I wrote above will turn into my lecture. I'm going to add a Powerpoint with pictures, too.

--Chris

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Some more notes on Truth

When you think about it (or even if you don't) it's really astonishing how much of what we "know" is second, third, or fourth hand information. For instance, I have to take SOMEONE'S word for it that Barack Obama is the President of the United States. I've never been within 1500 miles of Washington, D.C. I have no way of independently verifying that Barack Obama is President of the United States. It is unlikely that I ever will. All the information I have about our nation's capital COMES from our nation's capital through a very tenuous, questionable relay system . In fact, I've never known anyone who's ever met ANY U.S. president, and it's quite unlikely that I ever will. So....I have to have a certain degree of blind faith that certain basic facts are what they seem to be. The sad fact is that about 99% of what anyone knows falls into this category. One of the great joys I had working in the UCLA Plasma Physics lab was the ability to INDEPENDENTLY determnine many scientific truths ALL BY MYSELF. It was one of the few things in life where anything resembling objective truth could be had. A politician may lie to you, but an oscilloscope never will. And, if you suspect that an oscilloscope IS lying to you, you can always get another one and compare it. There is no equivalent instrumentation for politicians. I suppose my writing is escapist in the sense that it, for a few blissful moments, invites the reader into a world where scientific facts are knowable and known. It's as close to paradise as one is going to get in this world. Eric

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a newbie with a thought

I am an unpublished novelist but a serious writer and one day I will be a "finisher." I agree with Ivory. The day I finish my novel is the day I'll feel like an author regardless of whether my novel is published or not. (I do finish short fiction, essays and blogs so I know my chances of wrapping up the novel are good.) But I wouldn't be a writer at all unless I constantly remind myself "write what you know." And I agree heartily with Ivory, without self-awareness my writing would be empty and without depth. So I write stories about my true life experiences then I tweak it a bit here and there to fictionalize the story before I send it off. I feel I have succeeded in my storytelling goal when people, whether those I've known for years or those only for a short period, approach and ask, "Something about that short story, Vicki . . . that's you isn't it? Did that really happen?"

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1. Your vocabulary is what

1. Your vocabulary is what it is; make the best use of it and don't use words that you otherwise would not use to beef up your writing. It will show.
2. Grammar is best learned by reading. If you haven't read much, and I'll be blunt, then you won't write anything worth reading.
3. Creativity. Ouch! I am going to get hit on the head for this one, but it is coming from out there. It can't be measured. It can't be scientifically proven. But all artists know about it, when after a night of writing, one stands with a smile on their face, pacing back and forth, admiring in private the joyful feelings one gets when they produce a result that truly is authentic.
4. If your not putting in 4 to 6 hours a day reading and writing, and your watching Criminal Minds on Wednesday nights and Grey's Anatomy on Thursday nights, then the truth is you might like to write, but your not serious enough to drop TV and work.
5. If your not day dreaming of writing or getting inspired by something you read to go and write--in other words, if you have to force yourself in your private life to write and you are not having any fun, then the truth is perhaps you should be doing something else.

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"Whose truth?"

I find I am able to achieve truth when I surrender to let "it" write, rather than "me" write. When I surrender to the story and message, I become more conduit than creator.

The "truth" in the form of the text expresses feeling, dialect, and personality without any intentional manipulation from me. It seems to happen through inspiration from a divine source so-to-speak, as opposed to me sitting back, chewing on a pen cap, or staring blankly at a screen waiting for the puzzle pieces to appear.

Finally when I worry more about "whose" truth, I am most distracted away from where I am supposed to end up with the "puzzle" I am trying to piece together. No matter the source or intent, it can become truth the moment a reader labels it as being so which is a pretty good bond between reader and author.

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Eric, Vicki, and Tony

After a good Thanksgiving vacation, I come to your wonderful additions--thank you. You each add to this huge subject.