Friday, February 3, 2012
True Lies And Non-Fiction Fiction
I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "film is a lie at 24 frames per second." Well, that's true, of course, because a film is not life, it's a construction. Even a documentary cannot be anything other than a construction. But in openly-admitted fiction that is in no way trying to be True, how much is true by necessity?
A common debate you'll hear throughout the humanities centers on how much of the artist is evident in the art. How much of what's written is the writer? There are whole schools of criticism that take up variations of that one question. You can build a whole career in critical studies just exploring auteur theory. Way back when, one of my professors (also a novelist) was deeply annoyed we (his idiot students) kept making assumptions about an author based a novel he wrote. For instance, one of the characters was quite perverse which prompted our creative interpretations of what the author believed about sex and women and sundry accoutrements. The discussion got pretty detailed, and gross, and my professor ended up throwing a chair to get our attention back.
I had yet to brave the admission I was, myself, a writer. Publishing cartoons and writing all the time were my hobbies and side-lines, things I knew I would do for the rest of my life, but only in addition to a real career. Because no-one writes books or draws cartoons for a living. Those rare exceptions I saw in the newspaper or magazines or bookstore were freaks of nature or products of nepotism or luck. They were not regular, real people from no-where like me. Regular, real people from no-where go into law or medicine or other linear careers of easily measured success (apologies to the lawyers, doctors, and others laughing at me right now, but these were the assumptions of my juvenile mind). I had not yet faced the fact that I was headed for a creative career, so I didn't yet realize having any sort of audience meant I, too, was going to have to brave being exposed. As a multi-panel cartoonist, I joked I was a "stripper" by trade. I didn't realize at the time how very accurate that would be.
Creating anything--even if you couch it in lies and call it fiction--is a kind of personal striptease. Naturally, everything we "create" on some level reflects who and what we are. Even intentionally avoiding subjects, settings, events, or characters from personal history is revealing. No wonder it's such a daring and nerve-wracking thing to do. I get nervous as bathing-suit weather approaches, I certainly don't feel any more confident showing my insides as well as my outsides. When I started considering a creative career, I engaged in ridiculous fantasies to keep myself hidden. I'd write under pseudonyms, use caricatures instead of photos of myself, hire an actor to stand in for me at public functions:
"And the award goes to...Jody Lindke. Playing Jody this evening and accepting on her behalf, please welcome Vin Diesel."
What's almost worse than feeling so self-conscious is the counter-impulse of feeling supremely vain. Creative expression strikes the insecure me as a narcissistic act of screaming on paper, "look at me!" My inner-critic is fat and happy as it goes to town mixing low-self-exteme with guilt-generating shame, and the result, I've discovered (as it was recently pointed out to me again) is I chronically hold back in my work.
I'd been dealing with rejections and couldn't help asking myself over and over "what do they want?"--they in this case being publishers and producers and agents and readers and every level of gate-keeping in between--and I did this within hearing of a friend who reminded me, "what they want, really, is a piece of your soul." Did you feel a chill? 'Cause I sure did. If I didn't want to share my visage with others, I certainly didn't feel any more confident exposing any fraction of my soul to derision. I wasn't gonna do it. There had to be a way out. I had to be able to pretend convincingly enough to keep myself separate--and safe--and still create compelling fiction and films.
Looking at the stories I revisit most, the shows and films and books I turn to, I realized it's not only true, that bit about the soul, it's right that it's true. It is just. It is good.
It's also really, really, really intimidating...
Whether you're consuming art or creating it, you're engaged in an act of sharing, and what you're sharing is yourself, your humanity--y'know, that thing supernatural or immortal creatures always envy in us, that thing we always recognize in friendly aliens from other worlds and never find in the ones who want to eat us. That thing is what makes a good story great, that makes us laugh and cry and feel we not just engaged with art but experienced it.
I thought I was done with a particular bit of fiction. It does all the things it needs to do. It's funny, it's moving, it's got a plot, plants have pay-offs...but some parts feel clipped, some opportunities lost, because I'd approached it as a story about "those people" in "that place," and kept myself away from it. So what could be great is only good. If I dig in and let that bit of soul I've been hoarding show, if I scrape down to expose the raw, real emotion and pain of what I'm writing about, it could be one of those stories you can't look away from or forget, the kind of story that becomes as real and personal as lived memory. Drama is action driven by feeling, and I hadn't wanted to feel what drove the actions I'd written about. I'd written about death and fear and lust and love and joy, but I'd protected myself, kept my clothes on, kept my humanity to myself. It's intimidating to think of an audience seeing this and saying, "this is Jody's fear and lust and love and joy," reducing me to what fragments of myself slipped through. I don't want the censure or humiliation. If I invest myself and the work is rejected, I lose the self-soothing, "well, that wasn't really me." However much I give any piece of writing, it is by nature a construction, but if I only ever play it safe, my work can never be more than artifice.
Striptease may be an art, but making art is a striptease. You can't hide and create.
I often say story lets us live surrogate lives, but I realize now that's only possible when the teller is courageous enough to give real life to it. That bit of soul they want is where Truth with the capital "T" resides. Art doesn't give us feelings of strength or courage or empathy or solidarity or love or loss or hope. Art stimulates real feelings because real feelings were put into that art. Feeling is the heart (note the phrase) of story. That's what gives it the power to teach, to reveal our humanity, to cement our connectedness and acknowledge our fragility. Dismissing it by calling it "fiction" is kind of naive.