Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"Why I Prefer This Kind Of Writing Instead Of Another Kind of Writing Which Since I Do Not Prefer It I Do Not Attempt"

First of all – and I did not intend to mention this but it came to mind so I have to –

One of the primary reasons I prefer this kind of writing is because I do not have a boss.

A self-explanatory observation, so I shall rapidly move on.

“Do it better!”  “Do it my way!”  “Do it over!”  “I don’t get it!”  “Who wants to hear about that?!?  “You’re not ‘commercial’!  “You’re fired!”  “And I’m telling everyone I know – and I know a tremendous amount of people – YOU STINK!!!”

Okay, I had to get that out of my system.  Now I’ll move on.

When people want to get my goat – and it is invariably friends who do this, inclining me to revisit my understanding of the word “friends” – they tell me that even though I claim not to write fiction, every day in this blog, I actually do.

Meaning, I suppose, that, although my stock in trade is chronicling stuff that actually happened in my life, I am not, inevitably, documentarily accurate.  (Assuming documentaries are accurate which they’re not because they invariably take sides.  So I suppose I should say that I am not literally accurate.  When “literal” refers not to words but to events.  That was a valuable clarification, don’t you think?)

My response to that accusation of writing fiction, at least partially:  “Guilty as charged.”  In fact, I have often admitted to that proclivity myself.  There is no question you forget stuff.  Or you recall it differently (you later discover) than it actually happened.  Sometimes, you recall elements of a story, but fleshing it out – as with ancient scrolls containing certain “lost” portions, you augment your legitimate recollections with your best guesses at the irretrievable “missing parts”. 

Sometimes, you remember things the way you wanted them to be, rather than how they historically were.  Sometimes, you adjust the emphasis of your storytelling to make things (and yourself) look better.  Or worse, depending on whether your goal is to win praise or arouse pity. 

Still, the distinguishing difference between fiction writing and personal memoirism can be summarized in one word:


When telling stories from your life, a memoirist’s – or at least this memoirist’s – committed intention is to try, as best I can, to relate things the way they actually took place.


Because you want to.  By which I am not talking about spite, but because I believe telling them accurately is important.  For this memoirist, “getting it right” is a higher priority than getting it artful, or compelling, or commercially marketable.  Secretly inside me, there is the belief that “getting it right” will make it automatically all of those things.  Without benefit of effort or contrivance.

“Writing it like it happened” is not dissimilar to being a journalist.  (Except that your “beat” is yourself.)  Or a mapmaker.  A devoted landscape artist, driven to painting what’s in front of them exactly the way it is, not as they imagine it to be.  (Then photographers cornered the market on “literal accuracy” and painters evolved in another direction.  Though, thankfully, not all of them.)

Even memoirists, however, want to be enjoyable to read.  (I originally wrote “fun to read” but I changed it to “enjoyable to read” because I thought “enjoyable to read” would be more enjoyable to read.  I hope you appreciate these “tricks of the trade.”) 

You select your words carefully.  You build your story leanly but stylishly to a satisfying conclusion (by, as the anecdote goes, chipping away all the marble that isn’t a pony.)  And if you are funny, by nature or inclination, you throw a little of that stuff around as well.

You do not just write anything – “I augmented my breakfast of cold Flax cereal and almond milk with some Gluten Free ‘rye style’ bread topped with a thin slice of low-calorie Muenster cheese” (although this morning, I did.)  Nobody cares about my breakfast.  I tell stories I hope strangers will be interested in hearing about. 

Telling them skillfully, however, is not synonymous with telling them fictionally.  You can, if you put your mind to it, achieve one, without surrendering to the other.

None of which answers the implied question contained in the title of this post.

Why exactly am I drawn to this genre of writing?

I imagine I shall have other answers in the future, but today I am focusing on this one:

I like writing.  But I also like – and need, or at least think I need – limiting boundaries.

In fiction, you can write anything you want.  Who cares if it actually happened?  You can manufacture reality.  That’s why it’s called “fiction”, as in “fictitious.”  Fiction is entirely made up.  No limits.  No boundaries. 

Fiction is herding invisible cattle.     

Yes, once your fictional story gets started, internal consistency is obligatory.  You cannot suddenly change character “Sally’s” name to “Belinda” – it would confuse the heck out of the reader.  Although… experimental writing? 

“I care nothing for the ‘bourgeois consistency of character names.’  I shall change them whenever I feel like it!”

I tried writing fiction once.  The experiment lasted four days.  And on every one of them, I changed virtually every word of what I had written the day before.  Why?  Because I could write “anything.”  Which for me meant, “I give up!”

On the other hand, you take what happened and write it as accurately as you can.  The story’s parameters are your immutable boundaries.  Then fun then comes from working within them. 

Your eye is on the ball – because there is actually a ball. 

Your swing – and here’s the delight of it…

wIs entirely your own.

1 comment:

JED said...

I really like your insights, Earl. This is a very interesting post and made me think a lot. But when you say you prefer writing non-fiction to writing fiction, I am confused. It seems to me that all of your previous writing (pre-Just Thinking...) is fiction. Mary Richards, Louie De Palma, Marshall Sam Best and the others weren't real and you were able to make interesting and funny stories about them. Even your "Cellmate Confessions" post on February 5 was a fictitious dialog between two guys in a jail cell.

I'm assuming I am (as usual) missing the point of this piece. I'll bet if Wendy or your other regular readers comment, they will understand your post and write comments that help the rest of us understand it better. I'm just the guy sitting in the last row who always raises his hand but asks questions that have nothing to do with the professor's point.

A loyal fan,
Jim Dodd