Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"It's always a fiction"

My writing teacher and mentor Jack Grapes sent out the email reproduced (in part) here over the weekend. I am in complete agreement with him that our sentences are always fiction. We cannot recreate the past except through writing our own version of the facts.

In my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, I wrote down the truth as I remembered it. Some of the sentences I wrote about my truth were not as my husband remembered, but since it is my book and not his version, he is okay with it. I’m not distorting his version. I am stating my own.

Anyway, please read Jack’s comments below. By the way, I took his method writing classes. I recommend them to you all.

David Ulin's review in Sunday L.A. Times,
"Critic's Notebook: What is Fact, What is Fiction.",0,1862704.story

Sad to say, once again the subject of fact and fiction, fact and non-fiction, or fact and memoir, or fact and creative non-fiction, blah blah blah, continues to confuse the idea of an objective fact that lives in the past and can never never never be recreated except through a kind of fiction called writing. It's always a fiction, because not only does each person remembering the so-called fact have a different "version" of what happened, there is even a philosophical point of view that would posit that there is NO OBJECTIVE way to retrieve what "actually" happened, because that would involve so many different levels and aspects, that in truth (or in fact), one can never really retrieve some objective "fact" since no such objective fact can exist. 

But forget that philosophical approach, there's a deeper truth about fact vs fiction that concerns me, that concerns us as writers.

What the article in the Sunday Times misses, or I should say the review of the book, is that sentences are the thing, not facts. They continue to argue about facts, when it's sentences they should be talking about. The only thing that really happens are the sentences. The sentences are the objective facts, not the so-called "facts" that are embedded in the sentences. I'm not splitting hairs, I'm trying to break open your brain and get you to think like a writer, or think like a writer should, and not get sucked into all this nonsense about facts vs fiction, etc.

My mother, who carried large castles of flesh on her head,
slapped me whenever the bridge to the moat was lowered and her paranoid fear that the peasants were revolting became real.

My mother, according to my therapist, was a paranoid schizophrenic, but why did she have to slap me?

My mother slapped me for this, slapped me for that, yelled about this, yelled about that, until one night, I slapped her back, and for a moment, everything stood still.

My flushed mother who knows broken fibers of glass what she saw as she reeled religiously from charm to rage in the flash of a flesh pan.

My mother slapped me a lot, my brothers too, slapped anyone within striking distance, if the situation warranted it.

My mother slapped me a lot, mostly for things I didn't do, mostly for things she imagined I'd done, mostly so she wouldn't have to slap herself.

All of the above sentences are factually correct.

But each sentence is different, and if all they are supposed to do is convey facts, then as writers, we're in big trouble. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, or any of those other categories, we're not writing facts, we're not writing fiction, we're writing sentences.

Is the fact true or false?

That's the wrong question. The question is, which sentence works better in the third paragraph of chapter three? I'm not even sure where the fact in those sentences lie. I could claim the sentences to be true, I could call them fiction, I could say it's creative non-fiction, I could say it's part of a memoir, but . . . . what does that mean anyway? Even the claim might be false. I could say it's fiction, when in reality it's non-fiction; I could say it's a novel, when really it's an essay. I could say it's a memoir, when really it's a plate of spaghetti.

When, as writers, we fall into the trap of thinking there is a difference between fact and fiction, we lose sight of the real work, which is writing sentences. The point is, Plato banished all writers and poets from his ideal republic because writers and poets lie. That's what we do. We lie about the facts, but the sentences, as Hemingway said, must always be true. Whenever I have writers block, Hemingway said once, I just say to myself, "Write one true sentence. You've done it before. You can do it again. Write one true sentence, then write another, then another."

Like the wooden beam that must be cut correctly and balanced correctly before it is nailed into place in order to keep the whole house from collapsing, the line of the beam must be true. That's what Hemingway meant. Not the fact. There is no fact. Only the sentence. And it's truth--or perhaps I should say, it's trueness--lies in the words chosen, 
the order of the words, the inflection conveyed by the words in the sentence (sarcasm? irony? etc.). One of the great sentences I ever came across in my life was from my first grade reader: "Run, Spot, run." Hemingway would have beamed at that one. . . .”
By Jack Grapes

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