True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction

Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly.  It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life.  I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.

So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about.  My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it.  For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name?  Read on…)  It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic.  I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’.  He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents.  Suddenly I realised, that’s it!  Write about what you know!  Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’.  Genius advice!

I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose.  How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them?  At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names.  But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names.  I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals.  Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth.  Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception.  I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones.  But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction.  Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.

‘Interesting?  Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss.  As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late.  So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act.  Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them.  I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life.  Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.

It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life.  From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary.  Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’  No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane.  I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment.  That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was.  I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded.  Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.

So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance.  I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant.  But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this.  Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.

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Author: curiosikat

Writer, editor, linguist, social historian...

5 thoughts on “True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction”

  1. I never let a bunch of facts get in the way of a good story. “For it to be good fiction, it need not necessarily have happened, but it must be true.”

    drtombibey.wordpress.com

  2. Awesome post and I think that writing from life is what often makes it so compelling. Of course, if you cannot write, even good facts are not going to help but if one can create a great narrative from it, go ahead, shit yeah!

  3. To me truth is what is universal to the human condition and facts are only details that can be altered to show the truth. But I am just a country Doctor. I might not have it right; that is just my take on it.

    Dr. B

    1. Interesting… I guess for me it’s different, as I see truth as being unique to the individual perception. Perhaps this is just something that happened in my family, but I do think that what occurs, a true event/happening, is only what it is perceived as. Of course, there is some fundamental truth to it I suppose, but things are not always what they seem, and I find that my idea of what is true is altered depending on how much information I can gather about it.

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