The Last Word
How much is true?
I've been wrestling a while now with telling a story. An unformed, amorphous, and unkempt collection of thoughts, impressions and half-tinkered sentences that may or may not build to enough critical mass to become a book - a book I don't think I'll ever write. You see, this story, no matter how reworked, will have enough sharp edges to hurt real people. And that is enough, for me, to stifle its creation.
Some writers have no such compunction. Writers who soak up the matter of real life and put it down on paper without a backward glance. In a gentler era they were called roman á clef, now we call such writing memoir. Or, my favorite, creative non-fiction. It's no longer considered boorish to expose the foibles and pain - or joy, as the case may be - of friends and family for the sake of art. To take a person's anguish and make bold and recognizable assumptions across the page takes a certain selfishness to do without apology.
On the other hand, a good writer leaves you wondering how much of the story is real. A really good writer makes you want the story to be real; there's a certain vérité to the work that begs for it to be factual. Roland Merullo in his marvelous "In Revere, In Those Times" does just that. His depiction of an extended Italian-American family in the fifties and early sixties in Revere, Massachusetts, is so exact, so intuitive, it's easy to imagine that his childhood was molded in exactly that form. Mr. Merullo knows just what a backyard grapevine looks like, and how food is more than physical sustenance. His exploration of the transformation of a neighborhood boy into a prep school student surely has roots in his own experience.
The old saw, "write what you know," has a borrowed caveat. Do no harm. The imagination is fed by empathy, not enmity.
Sometimes people will joke with me, asking, '"when are you going to write about me?" The implication is that writers write about real people. We do. But most of us write about reconstituted real people. The genetic material of existing human beings is distilled into fictional human beings. Watching someone dance is real. What I write is a reflection of that observation, the essence of movement translated to the page. The way a woman dancing closes her eyes and sways to the beat, heedless of her partner's flailing around on the crowded dance floor. What I know about someone's painful experience is always going to be outside that experience, the wallflower's observation. To write about it is to climb into that person's skin and reveal information that can only be surmised. Remember that old television show, Naked City? The sonorous announcer's warning that the stories were true but the names had been changed to protect the innocent? Something like Law and Order with its stories "ripped from the headlines." To transpose someone's actual story, the hard facts and unflattering moments, into entertainment takes more than simply changing the name. Such things are the building blocks of a writer's structure, but those blocks must be, like a Rubik's Cube, twisted and turned so that it becomes fiction, observing the gentleman's agreement that fiction is, by definition, not true.
In Tobias Wolff's 2003 novel, "Old School," an "off-camera" Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, in reference to a piece of writing the schoolboy narrator has submitted to win the right to a private audience with Mr. Hemingway during his visit to the private boarding school, "You can tell your boy there that this is pretty good work.... He knows what he is writing about, more than he's telling, and that's good...and he's writing from his own conscience and that always raises the stakes. This is the story of a conscience and that kind of story if it's honest always has something for another conscience to learn from.... These are true human beings here, I mean true on the page, though I'm guessing they are true in other ways. If they are, they will never forgive him. This I can promise. If your boy had asked me, I would have told him to wait till they were all dead."
What is a writer's responsibility to his or her story and does it transcend the moral responsibility to friends and family? There's a difference between writing about someone and writing plot. "Someone" is relatively easy to disguise. But the story, the plot, the coat hanger of facts, is inherently recognizable. It's easy enough to change names and gender, age, and description. But is the plot, the outline, the essence of behavior, as easily disguised? Say, for instance, a writer is privy to a shocking secret, confessed at the end of a long emotional day of a wedding or a funeral. It's a doozy, compelling, rich, juicy, and begging to be told. In order to preserve confidences, and yet tell that story, the writer waves a magic wand over the facts and transforms it into - well, into another story. At the end of the day, the story in which the facts, emotions, and dynamics were so compelling in the first place, is an altogether different story than the one written. In the effort to save anonymity, or confidences, the sensitive writer has had to sacrifice the truth, which for a fiction writer may seem small potatoes; but, if the truth of the story is lost in the disguising of it, then it may be a terrific story, and safely unrecognizable. But is it, in fact, the story that the writer wanted to write?
Now, I have no way of knowing if Wolff is putting words in Hemingway's mouth. The fact is, the boy has not just written about someone else's story, but actually plagiarized it. He's identified with the writer so intensely, that he: "...changed Ruth's first name to mine, in order to place myself unmistakably in the frame of these acts and designs, but kept Levine, because it made unmistakable what my own last name did not. I changed the city to Seattle, Caroline to James, and brought other particulars into line. I didn't have a lot of adjusting to do. These thoughts were my thoughts, this life my own."
Needless to say, he's caught out. But the story touches on the secret fear of all fiction writers, that the stories they write will expose their imaginations as weak and imitative things. The best human stories should be inviolable, yet the writer feasts on them in cannibal rapture. Your story isn't my story. And yet it is.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.