How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining

authenticity_strengthIn a previous post, I wrote that being entertaining is far more important than being honest when writing fiction. {1} That thesis has recently been challenged in a blog written by Diane McKinnon called Writing Authentically.  In her blog, Ms. McKinnon suggests that: “It’s better to write it as authentically as possible, and decide not to share it, than to write a sanitized version of it and have it move no one, not even me.” {2} Ms. McKinnon writes that those that have read her “sanitized” versions have found something lacking.  “The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it,” one commenter said.  “How did you feel?  We want to know,” said another.  The insinuation that Ms. McKinnon leaves with these comments is that she wasn’t able to achieve an emotional truth in her piece without, first, writing the total truth of the matter in an original version.  She writes that she would never publish the unvarnished truth, for she wouldn’t want to hurt those involved in the truth, but she felt the need to write the truth, so that she could get to the inner core of the matter, before eventually revising the truth out in the final, published, and sanitized version.

How does a fiction writer avoid the truth, is a question I would ask her, even in a sanitized version?  If you’ve been a writer for an amount of time, and you’ve mined your soul for depth, I don’t know how you avoid the truth.  I do know my truth, I would argue, and I probably know it better than those that experienced it with me.  I feel it incumbent upon me to know the truth, and to study it from every possible angle I can think of, if I ever hope to embellish upon it properly, and I don’t think I need to first create an “authentic” version first to know it better.

My job as a writer, as I see it, is to take the experiences of my life that I’ve found entertaining, and combine them with a degree of creativity to create a fascinating story.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, some of the best writers I’ve ever read were also some of the best liars, and for a liar to become a really good liar they have to know the truth, and for a really good liar to become a writer they have to know the truth better than anyone else involved.  If a liar is just an outrageous liar, with no fundamental basis of truth, they’ll get called out on it, and most of us have, so we adapt and evolve, and we become intimate with the truth before moving onto the lie, and then the eventual fabricated story about it. For a liar to become a really good liar, they have to take the truth, combine it with their fabrication, and twist it around so that even those that shared the experience with us begin to question their memory of it.  If the liar is going to achieve this optimum level of confusion and believability, they will have to eventually reach a point where they twist the truth around so often, and so artfully, and with such conviction, that they accidentally convinced themselves of the story about it.  After doing this for a significant amount of time, the really good liar learns to channel that gift for lying into something that doesn’t cause embarrassing ramifications or harm to those affected by the lies.  They learn that writers tell lies that make people laugh, and it’s usually the reason why they became a writer in the first place.

The lies of our character.  When writers write characters we want to write the most entertaining characters that have ever graced an 8 X 11, but for these characters to achieve life-like qualities, we’ve learned that they can never stray so far away from our core that we feel lost within the characterization.  Even when we write bad guys, we may achieve some distance, but if that character strays too far from who we are, we lose touch with him.  That character may be based on that surprisingly uncaring friend we have that is capable of causing some people harm without conscience, and we may even take our characterization of him out to a limb that that even he couldn’t contemplate, but for those characters to move us, and others, we will eventually run into some element of our truth.

Larry David (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life.  The difference, says Mr. David, is that the character says and does things that the real Larry David wishes he could’ve said or done.  Larry David is writing a character that is the complete opposite of him in these given situations, but that character still has a truth about him that Larry can identify with.  He has his character do things that tick people off, he has him do things that are occasionally immoral and spiteful, but he also has this character do things that entertain him, and in doing so he may be saying more about his personal character than the real life Larry David that couches his personality to be polite.

If you’re a writer that has written at any length, or with any measure of depth, I don’t know how you can avoid the truth of who you are.  I don’t know how you can write a sanitized version of the truth without complete exploration of that truth.  I don’t know how you can write a complete character, a decent setting, or a captivating conflict without exhaustive reflection of the way you see the world, or your truth, and I don’t think you have to write a “true” version and an “embellished” version to achieve it.



2 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining

  1. Hi Rilaly,
    Thanks for referencing my blog post in your post. I agree with much of what you say about creating characters and knowing your own truth in order to be able to write fiction.

    In my blog post, I was specifically writing about nonfiction pieces. For me, writing the whole story, including names, dates, and details is important. Once I’ve done that, I don’t publish those details in order to protect the privacy of those about whom I write. So I rewrite the piece in such a way that it keeps to the truth of the story without revealing identifying features. My published pieces are “sanitized” only in that they don’t name names, unless I have permission.


    Diane MacKinnon


    • Hello Ms. McKinnon,

      The reason I referenced your post is because I thought it was an excellent challenge to my storytelling ethos. I realized that there were some limits to your blog (i.e., your use of the terms memoir and blog), but I felt it applied to writing in general (i.e., blog entries, creative non-fiction, and fiction). I have changed the names of the characters involved in my creative non-fiction stories, but other than that those stories remain largely true. If all you’ve done is change names, then you and I are like-minded, but how does that lone “identifying revision” provoke a reader to say: “The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it,” and “How did you feel? We want to know.”

      My response to your blog is a direct reference to your “whole story” details that your heart felt you had to write in order to properly rewrite the piece. My point is that I don’t know how you could write a piece, be it fiction or non-, without being intimate with the details regardless if it was an original, “non-published,” and non-fiction piece. I realize that my response focused on fiction, but I don’t know how you do it in non-fiction either. My argument may be one of semantics, and what may work for you may not work for me, but I don’t understand how one could achieve a greater truth by writing it out than one does by writing one around the fringes of the truth that a writer has to know intimate in order to skirt properly.


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