Saturday, July 17, 2010

Truth Versus Fiction

My husband showed me a small article in yesterday's Sacramento Bee about a dog who took matters into his own hands. Well,into his own paws. This was in Pennsylvania, by the way. Apparently a Labrador was trapped in his car in 90-degree heat for about an hour, due to a shopping trip by his owner: When she unloaded her packages, she forgot he was in the car! Obviously this dog had learned a lot by watching his person's behavior: He climbed into the front seat and honked the horn until she came outside and got him.

Now, my husband and I are dog lovers, and we ooh and ahh over how smart our loveable mutt is, but even we were impressed that this dog knew to honk the horn. Whether our dog would, I don't know -- partly because we wouldn't forget about him for an hour; and partly because neither of us honks the horn to bring people to the car. But this story was confirmation for both of us that dogs are a lot smarter than most owners realize. In this case, spookily smart.

My first fleeting thought was that it would make a good story, if you tweaked it here and there. Or would it? Could a good writer make a fictional tale out of it?

It reminded me of another true story I heard over the radio years ago about a home in southern California that was invaded by a flock of birds so multitudinous they could be called a swarm. I don't remember exactly what birds they were -- some rather small birds that migrate. Well, maybe they needed a resting spot, who knows? For some reason they came down the chimney and swooped all through the house, tweeting or peeping or chirping, and frightening this couple half to death. (No doubt, they had seen The Birds and were filled with premonition.) They finally called the fire department and all the doors and windows were opened, the chimney closed off, the doors and windows closed again, and peace restored -- except....

Except this couple had a parrot and his cage was in the living room. It was evening and the cover had been on his cage. They took the cover off, just to see how he was doing, and they found their dazed, frantic parrot muttering "Shut up, shut up, shut up," over and over again. I kid you not, this was a reported story on the evening news.

I have told this story to friends, and every time they laugh like crazy. Once I decided that if it's so funny, I should write it as a fictional story, and I tried to cobble one together. As it turned out, it didn't work as fiction. I suspect the same is true of the dog story above. Truth really can be stranger than fiction, and more often than not, the "this really happened" part of it impedes any nascent story. Why is that?

Well, to begin with, both of these are just incidents. Anecdotes. Something happened. And that's that. The story -- or not-story -- starts and ends with the incident. There is no beginning, middle, or end. Oh, there's the punch line in the parrot story. In the dog story, there's the "wow, what a smart fella," factor. But where would either of these stories begin? With the flock's leader saying, Hey, listen up, I see a good resting spot down there in that chimney.... With the horrified wife looking at the fireplace and screaming, OMG! With the dog panting away in the back seat and thinking, let's see, now, she always presses that funny looking circle near the front window.... With the preoccupied dog owner checking her "to-do list" -- butter, eggs, bread, dishwater detergent, dogfood... come to think of it, where is....

These are point of view questions as well. Just as you can't have a story without an arc, you can't have a story without characters -- characters who grow and change and learn something that a reader can identify with, some underlying theme. In the case of the bird story, about the best insights one can glean is that if you are a parrot, wear earplugs; if you are a husband or wife, keep the chimney vent closed; and if you are a migrating bird, avoid chimneys. In the case of the dog story, it's either if you are a pet owner, at least roll the window down next time; or, if you are a pet, keep track of your person's habits. These aren't exactly universal themes.

Which is why fiction touches us so much more profoundly than factual anecdotes. Writers work hard to unearth the underlying truths that fuel their fiction; the truths that ripple out of one heart to touch many. A fictional story is not happenstance. Very often the story that rings most true is one that never happened at all. Characters who don't really exist. Words no one really said. Actions that really didn't happen. But it feels real because it touches a reader. And it touches a reader because it touched the writer first. But the writer didn't stop there (being moved in your own heart can actually create slop the first few drafts). The writer honed and polished the work until anything without relevance was chiseled and sanded away, and all that was left was what mattered. What mattered. Writers write stories that matter to them. Likewise, readers read stories that matter to them. And if a story matters to the writer, likely it will matter to others.

I suppose the reason I couldn't write the parrot story was because, other than how funny the true event was, the parrot doesn't really matter to me. At best, he could be a side incident slipped into a scene of a bigger story. Likewise the dog tale. (Well, the dog does matter to me, not for story possibilities, but in terms of both responsible pet ownership and the learning abilities of pets.)

But readers, I give both these story kernels to you. Think of them as writing prompts. Do with them what you will. If you get a story you can run with, let me know. And when it comes out in print, I'll be your eager reader and fan!


Rachna Chhabria said...

Elizabeth....wonderful post. I am in sync with your thinking that "Writers write stories that matter to them. Likewise, readers read stories that matter to them. And if a story matters to the writer, likely it will matter to others."

Will see if I can whip up a story or two with these kernels. And will let you know about it.

Elizabeth, you can run this as a competition, the winners you select will get an autographed copy of your book. Will help the book get some visibility.

Clementine said...

I think the best fiction is based on a true tale. Some things that actually happen could never be made up! Great post.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I think one of the things blogging can do is give us a place to deposit these wonderful anecdotes that really *don't* make for fully fledged stories.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Rachna, that is a tempting idea, except I really don't want to have to read all those stories and decide. It would take away from my writing time.

Amy, glad to see you are back from your pause from blogging. Yes, many works are based on a true story, but they usually turn into fiction and scrap many facts that impede the fiction along the way.

Naomi, you are so right about the fun of sharing these anecdotes on a blog. It's the, "Wow, wait'll you hear this!" impulse, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I agree that sometimes life can feel stranger than fiction. It is so true.

Nancy Herman said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Mitty. I have always held that fiction teaches us history better than our dry history books. Think of "Gone With the Wind," or the book we've just started reading, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."
Aloha for now. Back to the beach.