You know that thing about not putting characters by themselves too often because then it’s harder to have an antag in that protag v. antag equation?
Yeah, that’s not what this is really about, but I was thinking about how people always say that. Don’t put that character in that room by themself unless there’s a Bengal tiger in there for them to tame. That would be cool, having a friend who’s a Bengal tiger, but in the wild, where it could run free and maybe bring you a present of a fish now and then since there probably isn’t a Safeway.
Then there’s that thing about wanting to know more about the mother, or knowing too much about the mother. If it’s my mother, then god love her, you would have a dilemma, or I would have the dilemma, not to project this onto you. The point is that you could talk to her for a while and you’d know a lot about her but you wouldn’t really know anything about her. Interesting to try to capture that on the page. That’s also not really what this is about.
Or that one about how good fiction should read like it’s true. That’s always been a harder one for me to get my head around. I can be gullible, but I knew that Lilliput was a made-up place. And Tom and Becky in the cave? Come on! But there are those stories where we think, yeah, that could be true. I never related that question of the reader wondering about true-ness or lie-ness to my own work so much until I recited part of a story I wrote at an open mic. The story’s about this kid who’s trying to earn money to visit her dead mother’s grave site. She’s afraid of this mysterious guy in town, and she can bake. I know, good luck with that.
Anyway, at this open mic, my recitation went well, and despite being slightly older than my character, I successfully projected eleven-ish and people were touched. Afterward, this woman said how much she liked the story, and that she was from Minnesota and familiar with the setting. Cool. Then she asked if the story was true.
“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s made up.”
Her face fell. If I was writing this into a story, I’d write it that way without embellishment: Her face fell. She looked seriously disappointed, like she wanted to take back everything good she said about the story.
I could’ve said, “Me and my friend Cynda were afraid of this guy in town in that way that kids make up stuff to be scared of, and this one time she wrecked her bike in front of his house. That part was true. Yeah, and my dad could fix cars.”
I’m not sure if that would have made that nice lady feel any better, because I think what she really wanted was for me to be that kid filled with longing and hope, and to have that hope dashed by events of my own making, because can’t we all relate to that at one time or another? Well, okay, so I’m a version of that kid. That kid sprang from the loins of my fingers, from the muddle of memories and fantasies and emotions that dwell in my subconscious and consciousness.
What is the responsibility of the writer in these cases, I started to wonder. Not to lie and pretend that the fiction is true, but how much of ourselves do we admit is in it or not? How much do we admit to ourselves about that? This other story I wrote that isn’t published yet is about a lonely woman who likes this guy, and he isn’t into her. I read it to a few of my friends and they started giving me hugs.
Oh yeah, the aforementioned kid story is called “Dearest” and appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Clover, A Literary Rag, which by the way, if you’re a writer, I totally recommend submitting to since the editors are awesome to work with.
Back to the one about the lonely lady who is apparently such a sad, pathetic wretch that she inspires instant sympathy—so should I worry too much whether, assuming I’m lucky enough to sell it, that readers will think she’s me? Is she me? Maybe she is, and I don’t want to admit it, or maybe she isn’t, and I did a pretty good job of creating a realistic character.
I fell into the trap of worrying about what people would think of me if they read this story. Should I at least make the woman cuter, I wondered. What would I tell that lady from Minnesota if she reads it and wants to know if it’s true? Well, I doubt she would read it because she’s annoyed with me, but if she did, I guess I could say something enigmatic like, “It’s as true as you want it to be,” or “Did it seem true to you?”
But that wouldn’t really answer the question would it, and maybe the answer is that the question should never be answered. Isn’t it much more fun to wonder?
XO Laurel Leigh