I’ve always been intrigued by the process of making, hearing, charting and evaluating stories. Because stories aren’t just one kind of thing. They are many kinds of things.
There are true stories, short stories, fabrications, misrepresentations, novels, insurance reports, family sagas, testimonials, memorials, fairytales, myths and arguments, the point of all being some kind of narrative persuasion. It’s a kind of stubborn, human-nature way of insisting things be seen from my point of view because that particular point of view is more entertaining, or more valid, or funnier or more beneficial.
Some of the best kinds of stories are the true ones that change all the time, making them, essentially, untrue.
For example, I grew up knowing the outlines of my mother’s life story. As I aged I learned more and more about some of her heartbreaks and chronic dissatisfactions—a marriage that apparently wasn’t happy, a disabled daughter, early widowhood, a subsequent love affair that culminated in a kind of slow and bitter romantic necrosis.
Yet when my daughter was 10 and had to do a video project interviewing her grandmother, the story she told to the camera and to Madeleine was one quite devoid of all such sorrows, apart from my father’s early death. I watched her as she talked about my parents’ courtship and marriage, about her ballroom dancing, about her three daughters, the various dogs she’d had, how much she loved her ride-on tractor and how much she adored (and she did) her grandchildren.
The entire story she told was true. True, somewhat. But it wasn’t the entire story.
The fiction writer faces an interesting question: How do you tell a story that could be true?
How do you tell a story that is believable, even if it is fantasy? (Imagine J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and others who write serial fantasy wrestling with this question!)
One of my own writing teachers, Richard Price, used to caution us students not to be too attached to facts. “God’s a second-rate fiction writuh,” he’d say dismissively in thick Bronx-ese.
I think he’s right. Some things are too perfect to be believable:
When I lived in New York I was dating a guy whose brother was a resident at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. One night we smuggled him out—apparently he didn’t have off-site privileges—and took him for Chinese food. When the fortune cookies came, Robbie and I read ours. But when Brian broke open his own fortune cookie, there was nothing for him to read; the paper inside it was blank.
I remember wanting to cry and not crying. I also remembered knowing that a scene like that, occurring in a novel or a short story, would seem heavy-handed, lugubriously symbolic.
Yet it was a true story.
God is a second-rate fiction writer.
Over the years I’ve told lots of stories about my daughters in this column. And they have been true. True-ish.
I’ve told truer stories in some of the fiction that I write. Fiction that is not autobiographical, but in which some things actually happened to me.
I wrote a memoir a couple of years back about what it was like to find my way into ordained Lutheran ministry, what my discontents were with it, along with the polarization and politicization of American Christianity. ‘True-ish’ wasn’t what I was going for; transparency was. Yet I didn’t want to identify any of my parishioners. Out of respect for them and for the profession, I had to write something that was both honest and veiled. The truth was, it was a challenge I liked.
I’m at work on something now in which a character has dementia. She believes she is in love with and beloved by someone who has been dead almost 200 years. Someone famous. So nothing that she talks about is true or real or possible. Other characters in the novel know that. But she must believe it. Her fabrication—her dementia—must be persuasive enough that the reader can envision this impossible love affair.
Here are some interesting versions of stories: the writers of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (and to some extent, John) tell the same stories about Jesus, but each in different ways. They’re like accident reports written for the insurance company—one driver sees it this way, and another driver sees the same event slightly differently. What’s true? In the end, whatever the insurance company says is true. Or what a preacher makes of the stories.
That’s what I love best: making stories be both true and false.