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.

{1}https://rilaly.com/2012/05/10/how-to-succeed-in-writing-part-ii-the-search-for-the-great-story/

{2} http://nhwn.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/writing-authentically/

Writing female characters and the fear of being called a misogynist


Most male writers fear writing female characters do stupid things. Most male writers fear offending female readers, and most female readers tend to get offended when men depict female characters committing the most trivial errors. No writer wants to offend their readers, and females get offended when a male writer portrays women as anything less than a Lara Croft type of character.

The fact is that women buy more books than men do, so it is in the financial interests of all involved in the publication of books that male writers become “enlightened” and avoid the ‘M’ word at all costs. The ‘M’ word is misogyny. Misogyny, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the hatred, or dislike, of women or girls. This, of course, is the strict definition of the ‘M’ word. The loose definition, or that which is thrown at any author, be they novelist, screenwriter, etc., is that which depicts a female character as anything less than Laura Croft.

Some have said that those critical reviews that contained pervasive use of the ‘M’ word might have affected sales of Tom Clancy’s later books. Although I’ve only read a few Tom Clancy books, and I stand open to correction from those that have read a number of them, Clancy has only written female characters in supporting roles. That’s a big no-no in modern fiction. In modern fiction, an author can have a female in a supporting role, but that character is required to be an individual in a seat of authority over the main character. Anything less, the modern literary critic suggests, is misogynist. Anything less is less than modern, offensive to women, and earmarked as limited. Those female characters must also be flawless, and they must be Laura Croft. Writing the line “I don’t understand,” and attributing that line to a female character, can provide an unsuspecting author the death of a thousand cuts from critics and readers around the nation. This constant bashing of Clancy’s work, some have theorized, has resulted in the diminishment of his brand.

Other critics say that Clancy’s prose was so pedestrian, in its reliance on technical knowledge, that the “one-trick pony” of Clancy’s fiction was bound to see a slide in sales when readers tired of it. If that’s the case, and I’m not saying it is, why have modern literary aficionados dismissed Ernest Hemingway’s cannon as misogynist? After reading some of Hemingway’s stories, one could argue that although females do not play a prominent role in most of his fiction, but the females he does depict are not weak. If a reader determines that some of the female characters are weak, they should be ready to admit that they are as weak as the male characters in his stories.

Are those who dismiss Hemingway’s cannon, the all or nothing crowd that suggests that every female character he ever wrote must be a Lara Croft type character or the body of work is tainted? Does every writer now have to have every female character out of the house, defined as unilaterally independent and without even the slightest weakness, and never NEVER as a side character to define the writer’s main, male character better?

Misogyny is also defined in current fiction (be it in books, TV, or movies) as depicting a woman who defines herself by what men think of her. In a review of HBO’s Girls, Alyssa Rosenberg writes the following:

“(The main character) Lena Dunham is hungry for sex but not grateful for it. She has no need for (her sexual partner) Adam or anyone else to teach her that she deserves to be treated well: Hannah knows that, demands it, and negotiates her shaky way towards it.”{1}

The ironic twist that Alyssa Rosenberg doesn’t recognize in her review is that the main character of Girls defines herself through men by being anti-male in the manner her character reaches definition. The fact that Lena “doesn’t care” so strongly only shows how much she does care. She reminds one of a teenager that so strongly claims that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them, that any listener knows that this is their primary concern. When this Lena character puts so much effort into “not caring”, what Adam thinks of her, she ends up thinking about him all the time. She constantly calls on him for sexual activity, and he only shows up at her place when she assures him that sexual activity will occur. The intent of the authors of this show is that this dichotomy defines the Adam character, but the objective members of the audience believe it also defines the main character. When the Adam character treats her like crap, Lena ends up putting herself in a position of less respect by putting up with it. This Lena character is also defined as unattractive, and this is repeatedly made apparent throughout the show, so the show depicts her as one that can’t be picky when it comes to her choices in men. She’s unhappy throughout the show (as most unattractive women are in Hollywood movies based almost solely on the fact that they’re unattractive) which defines her as an unhappy woman that can’t meet a proper fella to treat her properly.

Some have defined the “traditional” feminist as being an individualist, or an individual that succeeds regardless the hurdles placed before them. Whereas the “modern” feminist blames the male for their subordinate role in a patriarchal society. If we still exist in a patriarchal society, and that’s debatable based on the changes some of us have witnessed in the workplace in the last twenty years, then the traditional feminist learns the mores of her society, whether she likes them or not, and she then learns how to succeed beyond them. The modern feminist looks at the same mores of society, folds her arms in the corner and decides that “The world stinks!” In modern feminist arenas, such as those presented in the show Sex in the City and the music of Alanis Morrisette, attempts are made to define the modern female in an anti-male world, by lashing out at their mistreatment by men. In the subtext of their material, they incidentally display an obsession with men that provides the men more power in their lives. They are so obsessed with how men treat them that they end up relegating the power of their moods to men. They also sound inferior to those traditional feminist, individualists that succeed beyond them, and the men that mistreat them.

Just about every book written after 1992 depicts female characters as stronger than men are, smarter than men are, and more independent than men are. I wouldn’t suggest that women are inferior to men, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do incredibly stupid things too. Numerous studies have suggested that women are just as prone to do stupid things as men are, just as prone to have individuals within their gender that are idiots, and they are just as prone to fall prey to stereotypes and generalities of their gender. Writers cannot depict these truths, however, if they hope to generate sales, develop a following, and receive critical praise. If a writer were to buck the old guard and defy these edicts, they know that that piece they write and any future pieces they dare to write will receive a scarlet letter ‘M’ branding.

The question that I’m sure many readers are asking at this point is if an author knows that women are more sensitive to how fiction portrays them, and the author knows that women buy more books, why would this author purposefully set out to offend them? The point is that unless an author seeks to offend with their material, most authors do not seek offense. The point is that writers, editors, and all of those in the chain of production now have to comb through material to find any sentence that could possibly offend a female, or a critic, if they hope to make a sale. It’s also this idea that authors now have to change every general pronoun we might incorporate into our writing from a “he” to a “she” or to a “he or she”. The current incarnation of Microsoft Word even flags “theys” when we writers use it in the form of a plural generic pronoun, and they offer a “he or she” correction to assure the reader of total gender equality. One can only presume that the use of “they” because it has an ‘H’ and an ‘E’ in the word. As a result, of the inadvertent exclusion or marginalization of women that “they” appropriates, “he or she” is the correct term. Next up, is the word “the”. The correction may entail an (s), as in t(s)he, or a, an, we, etc. In these quarters, it is deemed acceptable to simply supplant he with she, however, for they deem she to be more inclusive.   

I would think that the purveyors of these claims of offense would know that they risk over reaching. If their goal were to garner more respect for women through language, and various fictional characterizations, they would stay within defined borders. They would locate examples of egregious violations, and hold them up as examples of what they declare a violation of modern characterizations based upon those borders. Unfortunately, when arbiters of an offense begin to hold sway, they begin playing king of the mountain, claiming that they can find offense in the most benign vehicles. The result of this is that valid charges of sexism, or misogyny, fall under the same umbrella in as benign offenses, and everyone that attempts to write anything is as misogynist as someone that actually is, until it’s impossible to define the borders, and no one is a misogynist in the pool of popular opinion.     

If a writer wants to write a modern, risky, and challenging piece of social commentary in their fiction that’s fine, as long as it only offends members of group A. Group A in this scenario contains the white male demographic … or is listing them as Group A misogynistic, sexist, and patriarchal? Let’s transpose the words and call them a group to avoid offense. So, let’s say that you can offend a group of people, because those people have generally shown that either they aren’t offended as easily, or if they do get offended that offense doesn’t show up in bottom line sales figures.

The problem is that writers have to have bad guys (correction: hes and shes) to define their good humans and huwomans. Writers, particularly those writing stories, also have to have some sort of conflict between good and evil, so it’s recently become advisable that a writer’s bad homo sapiens be Caucasian males, and that your good homo sapiens be those of a descent other than Caucasian, preferably of the female gender. One preferred good person duo in modern fiction, and movies, is to depict a member of the subfamily of the Homininae, the Hominidae, otherwise known as the Homo Sapiens hominid, be that of the Caucasian persuasion, and a gender that is female, battling alongside a member of the Homo Sapiens of African-American descent against the male Homo Sapien males of Caucasian descent. This will allow writers to have bad hes and shes with no one finding offense in their characterizations, or if they do find some offense, somewhere, it might not show up in bottom line sales figures.

Another problem that we readers have with these very specific, politically correct parameters is the predictability they place on storytelling. We all know by now that when a conflict arises between male characters and females characters, the female character’s rationale will always win out … for current and/or future sales. We all know by now that when a female provides a method through which the two of them can escape conflict, the female’s advice will prove correct, even if she appears to be initially mistaken. We all know by now that the male will eventually realize that his chauvinistic impulses are what landed them in their predicament in the first place, and if he would just listen to the female, he wouldn’t keep running into the scary monster of the story.

We also know that it used to be 180 degrees different. We know that 1950’s era movies depicted the female as a screaming, hysterical child that needed to be slapped occasionally to arrive at a rational state of mind, and that wasn’t right either. I’m sure I would’ve been screaming about the misogynistic parameters the hes and shes forced me to portray back then, but it flipped in the modern era to such a degree that most male writers are afraid of portraying even the smallest transgression against women. It’s tedious is what I’m saying, it’s limiting creative expression, and it’s becoming cliché.

A solution that I propose that we readers develop a universal asterisk that declares that as long as an author generously distributes these flawed, inept, and idiotic characterizations to all genders, races, and religions that we do not permit a friend to declare some sort of offense. I propose that we develop a “Get out of charge free” card for creative writers whose sole intent is to express their definitions of the human being through flawed, stupid, and inconsistent characters, when it can be determined that that author’s intent was to add definition to those characters, so that their readers might better identify with their characters. I know this is a foolish request, however, and I would not risk a career on it. I know that women no longer identify with flaws anymore, when those fictional depictions of flaws concerns a human being that the author suggests might have similar reproductive organs. They only want Lara Croft-type characters, and anything less is something they consider an insult to their gender. The thing is women always tell me that they’re tougher than men are. They tell me that the grit and temerity it takes to get through childbirth and various other events of life, just makes women stronger than a men. Yet, when the most venial depictions of a female character’s flaws lead them to start a letter writing campaign, boycott the author’s work, and to unilaterally dismiss everything a writer has done previous to that venial depiction, it leads me to wonder which gender has the stronger constitution in the long run?