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.




How to Succeed in Writing VI: Follow guidelines, and let your freak flag fly!

Mike Patton

“There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way!”  My Dad used to say. “And you always choose the wrong way!”  All artists have a natural proclivity to doing things the other way, a different way, and “the wrong way”.  Those who want to write a best-seller, sing a top 40 song, or sell a mainstream painting, study up on the trends of the market, and they have all their formulas for success spelled out for them in the various “self-help” guides that are available in the marketplace.  Artists, true artists, are the freaks, the odd balls, and the weirdoes of our society.

If these artists didn’t have certain predilections in life, they probably would’ve been better athletes in high school, and more popular, and less inclined to eventually have the angst that drove them to do what they would ended up doing.  They probably would’ve made better employees, better spouses, better parents, and better people.  Their people probably would’ve enjoyed their company more if they fell in line with the practiced repetitions that led to better muscle memory in all these avenues of life.  They probably would’ve been happier people and fit into society better, but they chose a different path in life.

Marcel Proust

“Everything great in the world comes from Neurotics.  They alone have founded our religion and composed our masterpieces,” –Marcel Proust.

To say that an artist chooses his path in life is a bit of a misnomer, for most artists fell into expression as a form of therapy.  They’ve usually had an incident, or a series of incidents, that they couldn’t quite get past in the accepted ways, but they made decisions on how to deal with them in their own way.  Most artists didn’t “reach out” for others to help them deal with that which plagued them, or if they did they recognized the fact that most people don’t care about other people’s problems.  Either that, or they didn’t receive any satisfaction from sympathetic responses.  Most artists internalized their pain, until it exploded into some form of expression.

Expression meant free-form expression to them early on.  It meant being outrageous, and offensive, and playing the game by their own rules.  If they had good mentors though, they learned that much of this resulted in sloppy and undisciplined work.  The whole reason they entered this field of expression was to expunge the toxins they had coursing through their veins, but their mentors told them there were rules and guidelines to doing this properly.  Most artists angrily accepted that fact.  They believed that artists should think outside the box, but they learned that true artists would eventually have to know what was in the box is if they ever hoped to violate it properly.

A friend of mine is not artistic, but he reads a lot of novels, and he knows their rules.  He also gets bogged down in details.  He circles offensive material, and he suggests that I delete, or edit, those portions.  He doesn’t know art in this sense, and he doesn’t care.  He knows the rules of society, and how those rules were applied by Hemingway and Faulkner, and he knows I’m offensive.  This friend wouldn’t be able to write one word of fiction.  He could get so boxed in by the rules that every word would be written, edited, and then deleted.  He would write a novel that would be as entertaining as an instructional manual for a park bench, or the proper use of fly paper.  He would’ve made a better editor, if he came to that crossroad.

The differences between an individual who knows the rules, but doesn’t know how to apply them in an artistic manner, are the differences between an artistic writer and an editor.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written the articles on developing the perfect character, or the most dynamic conflict.  You’ve probably never heard of them, for they know as little about writing an artistic novel as you do.  Some people are excellent editors and teachers, but they know little to nothing about being an artist.  The opposite is usually true of artists, and this is why freelance editors are making such a great living in the age of the rule breaking, freelance eBook writer.  It is also why the advice of most artists, such as myself, is to just do it.  Don’t talk about writing, don’t hold yourself up as a writer when you don’t write, and don’t complain about the arduous process involved.  Just do it!  Doing it, will help you figure out why you can do it or not.  The other important note on this topic is that those who teach can’t teach you how to write your novel.  They can give you general guidelines that you’ll need to know, but they can’t teach you the art of writing, and the art of letting your freak flag fly, in the vein that you’ll  learn by just doing it.  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.