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.
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