Truth is the cornerstone of good writing

Reading an article from an Allen & Unwin newsletter I subscribe to, I came upon the title of this blog post. It struck me as particularly relevant to my writing. I struggle with the truth. Not necessarily with telling it, that’s easy; but telling it to someone, anyone, who reads my writing, that’s difficult. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s frightening to think that my truth may not be that of others.

When I was in year 11, age 16 or 17, I started an English class with a new teacher. Let’s call him Mr P, for the sake of anonymity. This guy was awesome. He was the first teacher that gave me hope that my writing may be worth something, that I actually could write, that it was interesting and worth reading. It’s the most depressing thing in the world to be compelled to write but to think your writing is no good! I don’t know why, but I remember writing a short piece, I can’t even call it a story, about my grandparents and their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’. That phrase sticks out to me, as it was one that Mr P highlighted saying he thought it really worked to paint a vivid picture. To me, it was just fact: my grandparents were chain smokers their whole lives, and not only were their walls stained dirty yellow with the smoke of their constantly-fuming cigarettes, all the spines of their books, photo albums, and even pictures hanging on the wall were discoloured. I was just writing what I knew; and it was perfect.

I didn’t show that piece of writing to my grandparents. In fact, I don’t think I showed it to anyone. How would they feel about my description? And that was only the tip of the iceberg. I began to write about the time we went to the leagues club and my dad and granddad let my grandmother have too much to drink and she couldn’t stand up properly and had to be bundled into the car as she sang some old Beatles song. I was furious with her. I can’t remember what I said exactly, something about her being a disgrace (I must have been about 14 at the time) and I can remember her sitting in the back seat next to me giggling and slurring, “oh, am I drunk?”  That seems something of an amusing anecdote to an outsider, but to anyone in the family, it is fairly confronting because we know that she was an alcoholic. I probably shouldn’t even be admitting that on this blog, but oh well, she’s been dead over ten years now and I don’t have a lot to do with the members of that side of my family who’d be offended, so what the hell, right? Sorry to anyone reading this that is offended; but you know it’s the truth. And you know what an extraordinary woman she was, regardless of her emotional problems. So it’s not worth getting upset about.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to get at here is, when is truth okay? When is it okay to strip back the layers for the sake of expression? Is it okay to be raw when it’s cathartic? And where should one draw the line when it comes to revealing others’ painful truths? For me, admitting to my grandmother’s illness is something of a release. I feel as if I’m doing good by being honest; because she found that hard, and that’s understandable, she was ashamed. There’s something about writing about this sort of ‘real’ stuff that infuses the writing with more power. It becomes interesting somehow. Mr P noticed that, and it was he who first explained it to me. I was kind of annoyed when he first told me to write about what I know because prior to that I’d always written fantasy type stuff and that was the antithesis of what I knew. I was like, hang on, how can just writing stuff you know be the answer to writing well? How can it be that easy? I had been told by a previous English teacher that my writing was cliched and I took offence to that. But it was true. Good writing is characterised by its meaningfulness to the writer.

Recently, someone close to me read a post on this blog. She knew it existed but I’d never actually sent her a link. I was proud of the post I’d written, having had some lovely feedback from friends, and I thought she might enjoy it or at least give me some feedback in the same vein. Instead, the opposite happened. She mentioned it had some factual inaccuracies firstly, and secondly she thought I was leaving myself exposed. Apparently ‘people’ are always out to get you, and they use any means by which to bring you down. So you shouldn’t reveal too much of your ‘real’ self publicly. I felt deflated and sad. Once I’d moved past these feelings, I realised I simply didn’t agree. And that was okay.

I read a lot of amazing blogs. Soulemama, Edenland, RRSAHM, Wanderlust, Flux Capacitor, Stand and Deliver, The Girl Who, The Byron Life, The Bloggess and a wonderful one of a woman I know that I just discovered yesterday – Kirrilee Heartman. This is just a small list – there are more that I read and enjoy. And you know what they all have in common? They are about the truth! A truth. My dad never agreed with me when I used to argue that everyone has their own truth, that there aren’t many things that are equally true for all; he thought I was fence-sitting I guess. But I still believe this, and I think that’s why blogs and life writing are eternally fascinating. People are interesting. And fiction is fabulous, but someone telling the truth (even if it is ‘their’ truth, and a total lie for others) is the most inspiring thing in the world for me. Keeping it real, that’s where it’s at. So even if I piss a few people off unintentionally and what I say isn’t true for everyone, I’m going to keep on telling it like it is, right here to begin with.

 

I always get myself into trouble

Reading Lori’s post about her thoughts on blogging and how much one should reveal got me thinking. Again. I struggle with how much to divulge and how to do it. Yeah so no one reads my blog. Or at least no one I know that might be offended by what I’ve written. But let’s face it, that’s because I don’t tell people about it. If I facebooked all my posts I’m sure I’d get a few more people skimming and maybe a comment or two. But I don’t publicise it because I’m scared I’ll say something or there has been something I’ve already posted which would really offend them. I’ve written about friends and family, always using pseudonyms of course, but what if that isn’t good enough? What if I’ve said something to upset them? Or maybe they don’t like being mentioned on a blog, even if it’s not by name… That freaks me the hell out. And here’s why.

I’ve gotten myself in trouble with my big mouth so many times! I’m terrible! My family are really easily offended and even though I don’t have anything to do with most of them, I am terrified of pissing off the ones I do stay in touch with. I’m so judgmental at times, so cold and cutting, I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt, I just harshly cut them down. I don’t mean to. I just tend to be trying so hard to see everything objectively I guess and I have high and confusing standards. I also say too much. A lot. I can’t keep a secret.

Here’s an example: I had a friend at uni who was very bubbly and sociable and somewhat vacuous, or at least I had labelled her that way. She wasn’t unintelligent, but she was a social butterfly who liked sparkly things and would go out of her way to request extra froth on her hot chocolate. And would justify this by explaining to the waitress that she liked froth. I viewed her as someone who had friends just for the hell of it; if someone sat next to her in a lecture and said hi, that was her friend. I didn’t think she really had close friends, they were all acquaintances. Because how deep a conversation can you have about glitter and cupcakes, right?

Anyway, this friend, let’s call her Froth Chick, would organise social get togethers constantly. She’d send out emails to the world about parties or dinners or trips or other events. My small circle of uni friends were on her list and we’d often have a joke about the latest thing she was planning and whether we could be bothered going and potentially having to deal with her boring airhead conversations and giggling and odd science nerd friends. One day, Froth Chick sent out one such invitation. I think it may have been to her birthday. There were literally a few hundred people on that email list, it was insane! Remember the old days when you’d have to scroll down past the block of email addresses of other recipients? This email required about 10 seconds of scrolling just to get to the message! So I made a rude comment about how she’s invited anyone and everyone she’s ever met and most of them probably have no idea who she is nor she them. I didn’t think much about it and hit reply all, carefully deleting her and the few hundred randoms, but leaving my little group of friends. Including her boyfriend. I knew they were about to break up and in fact I’d been in conversations with the group where he’d inferred he had the same opinions of her, so I didn’t think to delete him. I should have. Next thing I knew I had an email from her, showing that the boyfriend had forwarded on my reply. She was understandably upset, saying thanks very much and how offended she was and yes she actually does know everyone on the list and just has a big group of friends etc. I was momentarily in shock. But what did I do? Yes I apologised for upsetting her, but I actually gave her what I considered to be some home truths. I told her she’s too obsessive and clingy with friends and has to stop being so superficial and needy. I can’t remember exactly what I said but would you believe she actually agreed with me and took it all on board, despite how harsh it was, and from that moment on she was significantly more sincere and down to earth. To the extent that I’m actually still in touch with her 13 years later. And I also once joked, right in front of her, about how you don’t need a law degree to do conveyancing and any idiot can do it, having just listened to her go on about how great and challenging her new conveyancing job was. And yes she has a law degree.

The point of that story, though, was not to demonstrate how good I am at mediating and confronting and helping people develop personally (I think I was just lucky and really deserved a slap for being nasty!). The point was, I can’t keep anything to myself, I speak before I think, and I’m really judgmental to the point of unfairness at times. So how can I ever blog and be me without getting myself in a huge pile of shit? Am I overreacting? How will I stick to the rules? I’m pretty sure I’ve already written stuff on this blog that would offend and upset friends or family. I don’t much care if I upset people I no longer have anything to do with and I don’t think I care so much about offending randoms across the interwebs, that’s just how being online is. But that excuse doesn’t fly with my nearest and dearest…

The ‘tooff’ and the truth

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 23 January 2011.

One of the first stories I remember writing was called ‘The Tooth’ or in my then-childish scrawl, ‘The Tooff’.  I think I would have been about six.  I still have the story, written in green crayon, with my own corrections in pencil a few years later.  As you can probably guess, it was about losing my first tooth.  It was a bottom tooth, and had been wobbly for some time.  Around the time, I had tried my first ever piece of chicken, having been brought up a vegetarian, and so had just discovered chicken drumsticks and eating meat off a bone.  The story, all true, went that I was sitting eating a banana during morning tea and my tooth came out and stuck in the banana.  I mistook it for a bone, or something not edible in my banana, and, being the impulsive mess-maker I was, I picked it out and threw it across the classroom!  As I looked across at my flying tooth’s trajectory, I realised what it was, but too late – plop, it fell straight into the bowl of soup that a boy in my class was eating.  Upon finishing my banana, I asked the boy if he’d found my tooth in his soup, and he showed me an empty bowl, saying he must have eaten it!  So I didn’t have anything to leave out for the tooth fairy.  My mum wrote her a note which we left on my dressing table, and lo and behold the next morning there was a shiny 50 cent piece waiting for me in its place.  After the tooth came a contribution from my granddad – ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’…

This was my first story, and it was a true story.  I didn’t know it then, but I would struggle forever with the concept of the truth in my writing.  Can you tell the truth?  Can you write about other people?  Surely even if you change their names it’s pretty obvious who you’re writing about.  What if they’re offended?  What if they sue you?  Doesn’t truth depend on perspective/perception anyway?  All these questions continue to plague me, but I realise that there isn’t a piece of writing out there that doesn’t have some sort of autobiographical element in it.  I think I’m interesting in people, interactions between them, and concepts around this are explored by way of rehashing the truth.  And after all, it’s my truth, it’s what I think is real and interesting.  I wonder though, would I get offended if someone wrote about me and I felt I was misrepresented?  Even if they changed my name so as not to identify me?  I think I might.  My most recent conclusion about how to combat this problem is to write about dead people.  The longer someone has been dead, the less possibility there is of someone getting upset about the representation.  And the more opportunity there is to make things up!  Fiction is an odd thing; on the one hand, it’s defined as ‘make believe’, yet on the other fiction writers are doing their best to make their writing ‘believable’.  So what is it, true or not?  Is all fiction true?  What is truth?  How can we establish a clear line between fiction and non-fiction?  And is there the same between truth and fairy stories?