Saturday, November 29, 2008


Revealing the Truth

Back when my book was busy getting rejected, I spoke to an editor on the phone who said to me: "I don't know. I think there is something about your culture which makes it difficult for you to reveal anything."

It was one of those moments which I have relived over and over again because all I said back to her was: "That's interesting." Which, it wasn't, really. But she was the editor and she had all the power and I was getting rejected and trying to stay neutral and just take notes in case I needed to do an edit just for her. Her provocation made me just clam up. I think she knew it too because she kept pressing harder and harder and I became quieter and quieter.

I did, in the back of my mind, think that there might be something about her culture which led her to think that over-sharing was somehow truer or better. I guess it never occurred to her that such an attitude might strike other people as vulgar. Seriously, if you are so busy sharing all the time, then what kind of meaning does a confidence take? If I tell my friends something truly personal, it actually means something, and I expect them to keep that confidence. I think secrets have impact because they are just that: secrets. And I don't see how my capacity to reveal anything about myself has anything to do with how well my fiction works.

Now, having said that, yes, "my culture" is notorious for appearing secretive. As such it is going to challenge someone else to read and appreciate people differently. But I have to live in this world in which self-disclosure is normal; I don't see why I shouldn't challenge you to live, for a moment, in a more guarded world where caution is bound up more with manners, and less with fear, and imagine what that might feel like.

I was thinking about all this the other day when I was asked to comment on an essay I'd written, and the process I'd gone through to write it. All I could think about was how I'd struggled with the "what to reveal issue" which, someone pointed out to me, wasn't really all the "revealing" if I didn't discuss what I'd hidden in initial drafts, and revealed later. Surprise. I struggle with self-disclosure. So, yes, the editor was right. When analyzing myself and why I do what I do and discussing it with strangers, "my culture" kicks in and makes me clam up. Does that mean my fiction suffers in the same way?

As a good friend once said to me: "You know how we always say that our fiction is just made up and not based on reality, but in reality, it actually is?" And I nodded. Yes, of course I know. The wonderful thing about writing stories is that you can refract reality through the lens of fiction. We feel like we get to hide.

Recently, a friend was concerned about what would happen when a piece she had written was read for the first time. Would people confuse her work with reality? And I said: "It doesn't matter. You're an artist. You don't have to apologize. Let a piece of art be a piece of art." And I believe that too.

I sometimes think that our confusion over what is "real" in fiction and what is "unreal" is a bit like debating the existence of God; to worry about what is real and what is not is to engage in unhelpful neurosis and take away from what is actually important, which is the reading experience, and the effect it has upon the mind. I suppose it is helpful to know if someone you believe in--be it a preacher or James Frey--is telling you the truth if you require that the author is some kind of embodiment of his aesthetic in order for his work to matter.

But is that the point of art? Do you have to believe in the artist as an exemplary person in order to believe in their writing? I think that's dangerous. Similarly, if you want to debate the existence of God on some kind of sophisticated level--and not a fundamentalist one--do you have to believe that he is a thing, and that he controls everything, and then and only then does the concept of faith really matter? The whole point of having faith is that it is intangible; the whole point of art is that its essence is ineffable. And this, I think, is partly why art is a spiritual thing; you know it when you see it, but it is not easily dissected.

Now, I'm not trying to say that writers shouldn't develop a fully critical tool-kit to determine what works in their writing and what does not. But I don't think that I need to know everything about a writer or a performer in order to know if their art is actually working for me as an audience member.

And yet, I think that the very best fiction is actually trying to get at some kind of truth--in its observations about people, about the world, and how we live in it. It's the fiction that matters on its own and not necessarily the story-behind-the-story. I think once we, as readers, start caring about a work of fiction so much that we want to know about the writer, that's probably because the fiction actually is working, but curious as we might be, it isn't our inherit right as readers and audience members to dig and dig and dig at an author, nor is it the obligation of the author to reveal everything.

ok. but alas "my [personal] culture" makes me one of those incurable oversharers who just loves to blab and blab. perhaps SHE is the kind of person who best never write a book because she won't be able to stop explaining why it is or isn't based on her life. ::fear::
Yeah, you know, as usual I wondered if I should post this . . . then decided to just get on with it.

Here's the thing. You'd never beat me up for taking some time to decide what I wanted to say in answer to a question. And you wouldn't assume that if I needed some space, it was because I didn't *ever* know how to share.
Ooh! Ooh! Yes! Thank you for posting this! I'm a typical (or archaic/iconic, since the world is changing) middle American white girl, and I don't relate at all to the other middle class, middle American kids in the blogosphere who write about how we all "must" overshare via blog, twitter, Facebook, etc. Why? Why is telling all of the gory details "honest" and "connecting with others" instead of just plain tacky oversharing? Apparently there is a cultural or demographic disconnect at play here too.

Then again, what do I know. I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a minor professional honor (by a small local professional trade rag) and the reporter asked me at least 3 times why some of my pre-submitted written answers were "so diplomatic" - why was I so diplomatic, did I learn to be that way through a terrible experience? And I thought, again, why wouldn't I be diplomatic in public? Why would I share my goriest, most brutally blunt feelings with everyone in the world? Who does that? You can hurt others, yourself, harm future chances, etc. When did this become the new Normal?

But then again what do I know? Though I will remain, like you and many others, erring on the side of decorum when the only other obvious choice is vulgarity. No apology for proceeding in that manner should be required.
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