Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Reality And The Story"

A writer friend of mine and I have this ongoing dispute about… wait.

You see? 


I just preempted my entire story with one word:


I described my writer friend’s and my particular contretemps as a “dispute”, which was the first word that came to my mind.  I could have just as easily called it a “discussion”, a “disagreement”,  or a “debate.”  And that’s… wait for it… okay, all together now…

“… just the ‘d’s’.”

I love a communal “Cliché Moment”, don’t you?

All of those words – and arguably words starting with other letters – could have equally adequately described what we were doing.  And yet, each of them colors the experience in a subtly different illustrative hue.  

“Debate” versus “dispute”?  There is a measurable variance in “heat”, the latter possibly presaging a duel.  Sad to say, it is entirely possible “sloppy writing” may have conveyed an inaccurate impression.

Which is, ironically, the subject of this undertaking.  Not sloppy writing.  But writing the truth.

The… whatever you call what my writer friend and I were engaged in – let’s say adhering to the “d” format, a “difference of opinion” – concerned his view that all writing is fiction, and my, ahem, more nuanced perspective that although no writing, fiction or non-fiction, indelibly mirrors actual reality – because, in non-fiction as well, the words the writer selects are potentially distorting, notwithstanding that conceded caveat, there remains the distinguishing issue of fictionalital degree, and, more importantly, the determinative issue of intention.  (I have gone absolutely “D-crazy” today.)

In fiction, the objective is to artfully communicate a compelling story.  In non-fiction, the goal is to relate what actually happened – a memorable event, an individual’s life – to the best of the writer’s research and structural organizational ability.

Both genres may include elements of “stylistic deflection.” (And in personal memoir, selective remembering.)  But one type of writing… hey, they call it fiction.  The other type is focused on accurately chronicling the historical happenstance.

So they’re different.  I say.  He says they’re not.  (Though I suspect he agrees with me more than he lets on and just enjoys getting my disputational goat.)  Feel free to weigh in yourselves on this issue.  All opinions are welcome.  (Those agreeing with me, more welcome.)

The thing is, in non-fiction – involving the commercial imperative to sell – the requirement to be interesting is invariably at war with (Dragnet’s) pedestrian “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Historians have to make a living.  And, more importantly, they’re writers.  With delicate, writerly egos.

“Your biography Chester A. Arthur was impressively comprehensive.  But, if you’ll forgive me, it was a slog.”   

To a biographer, “impressively comprehensive” is jubilant music to their ears.  But nobody wants to hear “a slog.”  Therein lies the continual conflict.  (Not to mention publishers not returning your phone calls.)  Precise accuracy may require one thing, artfully “wordsmithing” the story, another.

A Comedic Example:

Wait.  I’m going to check something on the Internet.  Talk amongst yourselves.


I found it.  Which is less funny than I didn’t, but we are going for accuracy here.

This is a quote from An American President, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner.

PRESIDENT ANDREW SHEPHERD (Last lines, walking with each other before delivering the State of the Union Address)

SYDNEY ELLEN WADE:   “How’d you finally do it?”


SYDNEY ELLEN WADE:  “Manage to give a woman flowers and be president at the same time.”

PRESIDENT ANDREW SHEPHERD:  “Well, it turns out I have a rose garden.”

Okay, so we’re doing this show Lateline, a sitcomical counterpart to Nightline, and in one episode (suggested not surprisingly by myself) meticulous journalist Al Freundlich (played by now Senator Al Franken) is hired as a consultant on a major motion picture, which he eventually causes to implode because his commitment to “verisimilitude” conflicts with the ever popular “Artistic License.”

In an effort to demonstrate his value, walking with Rob Reiner, who appears in the episode as the major motion picture’s director, Freundlich explains how, had he been onboard there, he would have prevented Rob Reiner from making an embarrassing faux pas in An American President.

“He gives her flowers from the Rose Garden before the State of the Union Address, (which is in January), saying, ‘It appears I have a rose garden.’  Roses in January? ‘Please!’”

To which a frustrated Rob Reiner sputters,

“It was the best line in the picture!”   

And there you have it.

The best line in the picture was screamingly inaccurate.

Yes, An American President was a movie.  And fiction’s entitled.

But non-fiction?


Despite the whispering impulse to stylistically “filigree”, telling a real story?  Your primary consideration is getting it right. 

Which sends me back to a recent post about my uncomfortable experience, working with a CBC radio producer. 

I hope I conveyed that fragment in (my personal) history as close to what actually took place as is humanly possible, telling the story without artistically “gilding the lily”, giving the experience the measurable importance it deserved.  No more, and no less.   

But I am not certain I did.
Two paragraphs up?  I changed a word so it would “read” better.

Hard as you try,

That stuff always gets in the way.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's a great line, but I think only someone who doesn't live on the east coast would have used it without thinking about the timing.


FFS said...

Sadly and with some shame my take away from today’s blog post is that a CBC producer wanted to gild Earl’s lily. Sorry.