8:08 AM – Late night. Ate sea bass for the first time. It’s a fish you eat without a knife. Then stayed up watching premiere of the new Netflix series, Hemlock Grove, which wasn’t good until I turned it off and couldn’t stop thinking about it, which is usually a better sign than loving something immediately. Drinking a mixture of yesterday and today’s coffee because I’m an adult and can make these kinds of decisions.
“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” – Anne Lamott
I recently attended a reading by author Tayari Jones, who read from and discussed her novel Leaving Atlanta. The novel relays interwoven narratives of three different children during the Atlanta child-murders: an actual event that Jones remembers from her childhood in Atlanta. In fact, Tayari Jones squeezes her name into the story, making herself a peripheral character in the background of the classroom and playground. During the Q-and-A, a high school student asked Jones if a certain detail in the story was “true”. And Jones, in a humorously snippy tone, retorted:
You know, I’m not going to answer that question, and it’s because of this strange idea we have about truth and lies in writing. Why is it that people always want to catch a memoirist telling a lie and then they want to catch a fiction writer telling the truth? Why can’t you just trust the storyteller to tell the story you need to hear or read?
I thought this was genius. And it reminded me, somewhat, of a specific criticism I received concerning one of my short stories.
In my story, the first-person narrator gets flagged down in a parking lot by a fella needing a battery jump. Alan, our first-person narrator, is initially afraid of this guy (probably because I’m often leery of strangers in parking lots) but then they begin a meaningful conversation about, what appears to be, the Alan’s Boston Red Sox baseball cap. Suddenly, the other guy, drenched in an ungodly amount of sweat, is telling Alan, who he just met and has not exchanged names, about his dead brother. He even gets real personal with it. And the narrator feels awkward with this level of honesty because it triggers familiar emotions in himself – so much so that the narrator gets a little snippy. The scene ends cordially between the two men, but it also ends heavy for Alan.
The criticism I received about this scene was that it did not feel honest or real. Several of my readers said, “People do not talk to strangers like that in parking lots.”
The ironic thing about this criticism is that I lifted the entire conversation straight from an experience I had helping a stranger jump a battery in the parking lot of a Family Dollar in Austin, Texas – and, yes, I was scared of him, initially – and that guy told me all about his dead brother and how they used to go to baseball games and he had sweated like a hooker hog in pig church! The dialogue was completely authentic! The dialogue actually happened! I even tried to cheer the conversation by getting a little snippy just like Clairee telling M’Lynn to hit Ouiser Boudreaux at Shelby’s funeral! Somebody had to lighten the mood!
But no matter how good or authentic I felt about that dialogue, my readers did not believe it. Either that, or they didn’t track with it. Somehow I jacked the transition between the parts that were “true” and the parts that were “lies” and, in the process, devalued my narrator’s authority. It’s a tricky beam to balance: keeping a foot in both realms while never tipping too far in either direction.
I had a similar moment recently as a “reader” while watching GIRLS. There’s a scene in Season One where Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, emotionally says to the guy she’s kinda dating but who she’s come to break-up with because he sexted a picture of his parts to another girl and it accidentally landed in Hannah’s in-box:
“I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, thinks I’m the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me.”
Hannah said a few other things in that scene – her standing in the hallway, him lodged in a half-open doorway – that felt like this line above: very unpolished, unglamorous television dialogue. But I loved it. I thought this scene felt very real. It didn’t feel like television, it felt like how a girl would actually talk to a guy. Very much like that scene in Away We Go where John Krasinki and Maya Rudolph’s characters sit on the trampoline and talk about their fears of becoming parents, and that moment – crap, I rewound it a dozen times – feels like one of the most authentic, un-Hollywood, unscripted, honest moments in a film. So much so that it jars you out of the film and into real life. People in films and stories generally are not that bare-boned.
But then I watched the Behind The Scenes on this particular episode of GIRLS and Lena Dunham admits that the entire very emotional speech Hannah gives to Adam in the hallway came from an actual break-up letter Lena Dunham once wrote to a guy. She spliced the letter into the script. And she admitted the emotion was easy to portray as an actress because she’d actually written those words to a real boy. She brought the truth into the lies. She brought Lena Dunham into Hannah Horvath’s world. And somehow she made it worked.
I’m still marveling at this situation, at how we tell stories that obviously, as Tayari Jones and Lena Dunham illustrate, involve the out-of-story writer but never fully betray the authenticity of in-the-story narrators. This is why would-be storytellers read good books and watch good films voraciously. There’s so damn much to learn.