Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"'Punching Up' The Truth"

Responding to Monday’s posting, A Different Hawaii Story, a commenter writes:

The story needs punching up. My verification word, “falardi”, would have helped you. It’s the ancient Italian crime in which the victim is set upon by a pack of mad real estate salesmen who refuse to help find his missing contact lens until he agrees to buy a timeshare.

First of all, when I hear that something I have written needs “punching up”, there’s a trigger mechanism in me that immediately hits, Code Red! I don’t blame the commenter – the person doesn’t know me – but I’m telling you, explosions go off.

Bolts of fire dart menacingly from my eyes, and possibly my ears as well. Imagine a Hulk moment, double it, and get out of the way.

I’m sorry, but I’ve been told my scripts need “punching up” too many times to take even a casual mention in stride. It’s my own personal, “Niagara Falls.”

“Slowly I turned…”

Trigger mechanisms have no sense of humor. By the time my cooler head prevails and the “all clear” siren sounds, my unharnassed wrath has turned entire cities to rubble.

My second response was that what the commenter had written was skillfully worded and appealingly funny. But by then, it was way too late. My head had already gone into orbit.

Now comes the third response. I harbor the hope that when you read my stories – the contact lens story (January 12), my toy wrapping at Harrods story (“London Stories – Part Three and Three B”, December 18 and 19), my polio shot story (“Leadership Quality”, September 29), and the others I’ve told here – you sense something inherent in them that impels you believe, with the greatest degree of confidence you can feel for a story told to you by a stranger that…

“This thing actually happened.”

If I thought you thought I made this stuff up, I’d be disappointed and sad, hurtling rapidly towards devastated. My assuring you that these stories happened isn’t enough. To feel successful as a storyteller, I need you to know that instinctively.

I take no credit for the stories themselves. My input lies in their selection – deciding if the story is worth telling – and in the writing choices I make when I’m telling it. Choice of words. Dramatic emphasis. Length. Stuff like that.

If it’s inherently interesting, the only way I can fail is if I told that story, which actually happened in such a way that left readers feeling that it didn’t. I can’t imagine this happening. But if it did, something in the writing would have to have gone terribly wrong.

“I’m telling you, it happened!

“Yeah, but it feels like it didn’t.”

That would be bad. You’d have to turn in your pen after that.

More complicated, at least for me, is the “hybrid” situation. By which I mean this. A television writer friend wrote a novel about writing for television. The effort was generally First Class, but you could clearly identify the parts of the novel based on events that actually happened from the parts the author himself made up.

The “parts that happened” sections felt richer in their revealing detail, ringing truer in that monitor inside us that makes such calls. These were by far the most satisfying parts of the novel, the chocolate chips in the oatmeal cookie of the book.

Masking criticism as curiosity, I queried him about his process. “How do you make the parts of the book that didn’t happen feel as real as the parts of the book that did?” Which is a passive aggressive way of saying, “Except for the parts that actually happened, I didn’t really care for your book.”

My friend’s answer was highly revealing. He didn’t say anything. Which was his way of telling me, “Shut up!”

To me, a good story that actually happened is gold; a manufactured one, a readily distinguishable iron pyrites. This statement may merely reflect my limitations as a writer. Like my friend who wrote the book, I may simply be not gifted enough to mesmerize my readers with imagined storytelling.

There seems to be a missing element in me that will not allow me to surrender to something I know is made up. (How couldn’t I know? As the writer, I’m the guy who made it up.) When it comes to fictional fabrication, I am noticeably lacking in the courage of my confections.

I stick to the stories that actually happened. And I never, ever “punch them up.”

(SPOKEN LIKE GARY COOPER IN SERGEANT YORK) I’m a-hopin’ that’s good enough.

Having gratuitously attacked the commenter for the phrase “punching up”, it seems perfect timing to remind you to keep those comments coming. My life isn’t that fascinating. If I stick exclusively to stories that happened, sooner or later, I am going to run out. Help prolong the inevitable by interrupting my anecdotal barrage with questions, suggestions and ideas you’d like me to talk about. I’ll be grateful for your assistance. Though there’s the distinct possibility that I won’t act like it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Earl
This reminds me of time I saw Margaret Atwood being interviewed on "Take 30" by her majesty, Adrienne Clarkson (my long term memory is still intact). She had just written "Lady Oracle", and since it's about the development of an obese girl who grows up to be the kind of writer who sits down in front of a candle and waits for voices to 'inspire' her to do 'automatic writing', (not exactly the Pomerantz method).... Adrienne asked her, of course, what it was like to be a fat child. Good old Maggie stared at her in shock and confessed that she was never a fat child, but that she did have an imagination and reminded her, in no uncertain terms, that she wrote fiction.
Alls I can say is that it takes all kinds.....besides, I much prefer your ramblings to her dry, cold stories. Her best stuff is when she does 'adapt' from real life and you know exactly who she is writing about.

OutOfContext said...

Jeez I'm glad I didn't suggest adding sharks with lasers to future tellings of your Lorne Michaels at Sardi's story...

growingupartists said...

Earl, I'm confused (my personal tendency, having nothing to do with your storytelling). Back in May of 2008 you told a story called A Possibly Special Appearance.

You left reality hanging from a thread, and I've never been the same since. Were you on the David Letterman show, or not?

Anonymous said...

I admit that the Hawaiian story didn't work for me either. I 'll borrow a metaphor from Douglas Adams and say it was the L-shaped story-telling: at first it's about passive vacation and annoying salesmen, then it switch to losing a contact lens and finding it by miracle and ends abruptly.

It felt like the fabric of two stories sewn together. Would you react the same if I told you that it needed more focus?

Max Clarke said...

The stories are interesting and authentic, I look forward to them, and the recent one in question doesn't need any Hawaiian Punch.

Anonymous said...

Look at the bright side.

You could have started getting notes from your blog readers.

("Does it have to be Sardi's? Couldn't it be Tavern on the Green?")