Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Son Keeps a Collection of Mommies at Target: Making Up the Truth

I love that my three-year-old doesn't quite understand the difference between fabrication and life as it really happens. To him, it's perfectly reasonable to claim that monsters come out of the walls of his bedroom in the dark. The trampoline is a cage. The toilet, a goose. He says he has a collection of other mommies at Target. He doesn't believe any of it, but he's not exactly lying either. For him, the line between real and not real is happily blurred.

The line is much more sharply drawn for my seven-year-old little girl. It annoys her to no end for her brother to claim to remember how things were when she was a baby, three years before he was born. He says, "I am a caterpillar," and she is indignant. This simply is not true.

Poor thing. She is burdened with an infuriating cause: she longs to set the world right. Half-truths and exaggerations offend her. White lies are beyond her sense of fairness. If you ask her, did she have fun playing at her grandparents' house this afternoon, she can't just say yes and get on with it. She can't even just say no or shrug noncommitally and skip away. She is left in a terrible quandary: Did she have fun? How does she know for sure? And, even if most of it was fun, does that mean the whole of it can be called fun? What does that word--fun--even mean?

I suspect it's partly to do with their ages. They may stray a bit as they grow and learn things, as their brains allow for more points of view and as they experience life. I think the pathways, though, the means of expression, are essentially set. They at least have their bents, their tendencies.

But it's not just the two of them: we are all looking to understand what we see and feel, and we are desperate to tell our versions of the truth.

Aiden is no liar. He is afraid to go upstairs by himself; to him, the danger of the dark is exactly equal to the danger of the unseen monsters. What he is saying could be, figuratively, a whole lot more true than what is literal and evident. He doesn't actually have ten mommies stored away in the lawn and garden aisle of Target, but his mother is often distracted. So, the sentiment behind it is true: he wishes he had all those loving mothers lined up, at the ready.

As a fiction-writer, I admire his technique. He tells a truth that is all the more poignant for its emotional precision. He must have absorbed it in the womb: show don't tell, the first rule of fiction-writing.

And little Abby. Abby is a philosopher, a theologian. A questioner. Her drive to get it right is the most universal and high-stakes ambition for any artist. That's what we really want to do, isn't it? Get the details spot-on; we won't call it fun unless the story proves as much. Like Abby, we question, we wonder, we linger over our choice of words. We worry over them, sometimes taking a long time to answer, to let go.

It's an oddly satisfying brand of torture, isn't it?

Try this:

Take a character you've been working on and give him/her an absurd physical ailment that somehow mirrors his/her emotional state. There are tons of examples of this out there--Gregor the dung beetle, anyone?--but I especially love how Aimee Bender does this in her collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. In her story, "Marzipan," for example, the father, grief-stricken over the loss of his own father, wakes up to find a hole where his stomach used to be. Another story, "The Remember" begins: "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution." By the end of the story, he's a salamander.

Imagine: a housewife, frustrated by how her family takes her for granted, literally goes invisible. A no-fun executive turns to lead. An elderly person falls apart, piece by piece. A teenager, all hormones and angst, begins to smolder.

Be Aiden: make it wild and unspeakably true. Be Abby in the details. This is what makes it believable, what makes it all the more heart-breaking or inspiring or ironic.

Then, either toss the exercise, just carrying from it a deeper understanding of your character, or find a way to use it in your story. Maybe it is the story?


Kathy Waller said...

“There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.” ~ Maya Angelou

“The truth is more important than the facts.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright

"He is afraid to go upstairs by himself; to him, the danger of the dark is exactly equal to the danger of the unseen monsters. What he is saying could be, figuratively, a whole lot more true than what is literal and evident." ~ S.W.

I'm an Abby. I've been fizzing over the fact/truth problem for years. I understood what Angelou and Wright meant but couldn't explain it (which means I didn't understand it at all). Your remark about Aiden's fear of monsters being more true than the literal monsters has cleared that up for me.

As for the "oddly satisfying brand of torture"--yes, yes, exactly.

It's only 8:14 a.m., and already you've made my day.

Jessie Carty said...

Thanks for the truth facts quote by Angelou I couldn't remember who it was by!

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, I'm so glad you found my post useful!! It's something to think about, what "truth" means to the fiction-writer. It's taken me a long time to figure out how truth and facts and emotional truth work themselves out in a story and in real life...I'm still figuring it out, really. It's part of the writing process, though, isn't it? Figuring all this out?

Love that word, fizzing, by the way.

Thanks for your comment!!

Susan Woodring said...

Oh, yes, thank you for the quotes! These are great!!

Susannah said...

Hi Susan~
Enjoying getting to know you a bit more through your blog. Also enjoying your writing class very much!

Great ideas here! Thanks~

Susan Woodring said...

Susannah, I'm enjoying the class, too. I really love getting to spend time with people who love to talk about writing. Hope everything's going well with you, having a good writing week??

Thanks for stopping by! Come again. :)

Susannah said...

...a good writing week?


Trouble is, when I sit down, I have difficulty staying on task. I know it's everyone's struggle, but w/ 3 very active kids, interruption is particularly meddlesome. Used to I would write early, early in the am, then my eldest's bus stop time changed to 0-dark-thirty, & I could NOT abide waking @ 3:00am to write! Funny how just when I find a rhythm (read: fitting my things around everyone else's schedules), the schedules change.

SO. Precious husband got a new battery for my laptop, which I took to the soccer field @ our 7y/o practice on Thurs. night, & also to 13 y/o's trumpet lesson Sat. morning. I suppose this is the new rhythm - for now.

Good writing week? Have battery & laptop; will travel to write.

See you Tuesday!

Susan Woodring said...

I think that's a lesson I've learned as a mom, too, how to write anytime, anywhere. If I had to have a specific place and zero distractions, I'd never get it done. Like you, I write whenever and wherever I can. It's good discipline, though, so good for you!!