Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"There Is A Difference"

Here’s an assertion I have trouble backing up:

“I don’t write fiction.”

I’ve heard myself say this on numerous occasions. And when I said it, I believed it. The problem is, the facts of my career suggest otherwise. As do the quizzical expressions on the faces of the people I say, “I don’t write fiction” to. Which means, very likely, that I’m wrong.

That’s hard to believe. Not me being wrong – that happens disturbingly often – but me being wrong about me. It’s a little disconcerting. If I get “me” wrong, what can I possibly get right? And even if I were right about it, who would believe me?

THEM: We’re not buying it.

ME: But it’s true.

THEM: Where’s your credibility? You said you didn’t write fiction.

Okay. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I’m wrong. I do write fiction. Or at least I did when I was working in television, as opposed to my writing on this blog, which is factually true, except for the mistakes, the misrepresentations and the things I remember incorrectly.

“All half-hour comedies are fiction. I spent my career writing half-hour comedies. I spent my career writing fiction.”

It’s simple logic. And I know logic. I once won a hundred-and-fifty dollar prize in second-year college Philosophy, which was the logic year. Logic decrees that my assertion is incorrect. I did write fiction.

And yet…

I didn’t feel like I did.

And I can’t exactly explain why. Though not being able to explain why I didn’t feel like I wrote fiction doesn’t mean I didn’t write fiction. It just means I’m confused.

I have reasons for feeling that I didn’t write fiction. I’ll start with the stupidest reason, and get it out of the way. The stupidest reason is this. The characters I wrote did not simply exist in my imagination. When I came down to the stage for rehearsals,

There they were.

They’d say, “How’re ya doin’, Earl?” “How’s it goin’, Earl?” “Could you give me more lines, Earl?”

These were actual people. You could bump into them. You could smile at them, and they’d smile back. You could explain to them why they couldn’t have more lines, and watch them scurry off and call their agents. None of that happens with fictional characters.

Fictional characters don’t exist.

These characters did.

I know. I’m confusing the characters with the actors who played them. The actors exist; the characters don’t. “Sitcom characters are fiction. I wrote for sitcom characters. I wrote fiction.” And there I am, defeated again by pure logic.

I wrote for fictional characters. And yet – and you’ll just have to take my word for this – they felt real to me. But who knows? Real fiction writers could say the same thing.

“These characters feel real to me. They speak to me, and I simply write down what they say.”

Maybe so. But my characters were walking around.

“Where are you going?’

“To my dressing room.”

I heard them say that. Do fictional characters have dressing rooms? No. Do fictional characters get out of their costumes and put on their street clothes? Fictional characters don’t have street clothes. You see the distinction? I think I’m on to something here. I really do.

Okay, I’ll move on. A real difference between what I did and fiction writing is that, except for the barest of stage directions, I never wrote description. The scripts I wrote consisted almost entirely of dialogue.

Fiction writing is full of description. “The wind was howling, like (some scary thing that howls.)” “The (whatever kind of flowers) were in bloom as flocks of (whatever kind of birds) flew overhead.” “She pressed her heaving (whatever parts of her that heave) against his (whatever parts her heaving parts naturally came in contact with.”)

You can readily see why I don’t write description. And with my writing, I never had to.

Which made me feel like I didn’t write fiction. Do I need to do the logic? Okay.

“Fiction writing ( I know there are exceptions) has description. My writing has no description. My writing is not fiction writing.”

So there’s that.

The other thing you won’t find in my scripts was “inner dialogue”, the stuff the characters are thinking and feeling. (Which when you think about it is really “inner monologue”, it being, barring the multiple personality arrangement, very difficult to put two or more peoples’ inner thoughts and feelings into a single person’s head.)

Fiction’s brimming with “inner dialogue.” “What is she thinking?” “What is he thinking I’m thinking?” “What is she thinking I’m thinking she’s thinking?” I never did any of that. Conveying internal processes? That’s the actor’s job.

In fact, when writers would suggest the character’s inner goings-on (in bracketed stage directions preceding the dialogue), many actors would bristle vociferously, demonstrating their displeasure by obliterating our suggestions with thick black pencils. By demanding proprietorship over their character’s inner imaginings, these actors were drawing a distinction between themselves and their fictional counterparts (who, unless the writer says they do, don’t even own pencils).

The actors’ distinction? My distinction.

On an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, Larry’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley, converts to Judaism, and, at one point, he says to Larry,

You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

To which Larry (who looks rather Jewish, and is played by a Jewish comedian) replies,

“I’m not. I’m something else.”

That’s how I feel about what I wrote. It may appear to be fiction, but it is, in fact, something else.

Of course, what made Larry’s response funny was that it was entirely unconvincing.
I can't believe it. Six hundred posts. And most of them don't stink. Congratulations, me. And you, for your essential participation.


Alan said...

It's not that you think you're writing documentaries...

Dimension Skipper said...

Your fiction has always been more real than a lot of so-called non-fiction stuff I've read/seen over the years.

600! Indeed... Yay, you! And Yay, us! Or at least me, anyway—I shouldn't presume to speak for anyone else. And imo NONE of them have stunk.

Thank you for sharing your inner monologues.

Diann said...

Congratulations on 600 posts! I haven't been here for all of them, but I've enjoyed all that I have read since I found you.

Max Clarke said...

600 posts, most impressive, and none of them were about American Idol.

I was especially impressed by the ones you wrote when you had your heart problem, and of course your book-length Story Of A Writer series. Good stuff.

As to your discussion of fiction, great writing has truth, regardless of how it's categorized. The plays, A Man For All Seasons and The Lion In Winter, to name just two, communicate something more honest than anything the kings and queens of England and France may have actually said.

growingupartists said...

You've made technological leaps and strides. Congratulations, old man!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Earl. You are indeed someting else! Your writing moves us in the most unexpected ways. I can't wait for the next 600.