Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Write the Truth

A few years ago, I was looking through some stories I had written when I was younger, and found one that was hard to understand.  It was one I wrote in 7th grade, based on a true story: A girl gets a substitute teacher who seems really mean at first, but the girl develops a special bond with her by the end.  The substitute has a keen sense of the kids' social dynamics and has a way of reducing relational bullying in the class without letting on that she's doing this on purpose. 

The problem with this story is that I was never clear about what was going on in the classroom before this teacher came along.  We get the sense that the main character has experienced relational bullying, but we never see it happening.  She's always referencing a conflict with certain classmates, but we have zero idea what the problem is. My guess is that I didn't want to get into the details because I was too close to it.  I was unfamiliar with the term "relational bullying" in middle school, and wasn't sure if what went on in my school would even be classified as bullying.  For these reasons, I circled my way around the central conflict and hoped the reader would know what was going on.

I did something similar in a semi-true story that I wrote for my college fiction writing class - I jumped around a lot, saying things like "We talked all night" without even saying what the characters were talking about.  I had the lead character hanging out with some people, and a moment later saying that they weren't really her friends, with no explanation of what the problem is or why she is hanging out with them in spite of this. My classmates pointed out these issues, an as I was editing and adding more detail, it became clear why I hadn't included those details in the first place - because everything I wrote about was still going on, and it hurt to relive everything and to create false conclusions for issues that had not been resolved.

I am almost finished editing my first novel and am beginning to outline my second one, which is based on a true story. And as I envision the scenes, I find myself doing what I did for that seventh grade story and for my first fiction writing class - I keep circling around the core issues, making references to things as if the reader already knows what I'm talking about. I thought I had learned better than that, but I guess I'm just afraid. I really wish certain parts would just write themselves so that I don't actually have to go back there.  

I have a lot of respect for people who tell their stories.  I was just rereading my professor Jenny Boylan's memoir, "I'm Looking Through You," and admiring how much courage it must have taken to become her real self and tell her story.  One of our earliest classes was a lecture on inspiration, which I assumed would mean learning how to observe things and write down people's conversations, but instead, Jenny told us that we each had something to say, something that only we could say, and that we shouldn't be afraid to tell our stories.  

So I'm going ahead with my second book, and I will be clear.  I'll be aware of my tendency to circle around things from the start.  Every time a person says how they feel about something, I will make sure the reader knows why.  Even if it means reliving everything.  I've seen so many classmates take on a heavy course load and say, "I'm gonna die this year," while their tone would indicate that this was ultimately okay, no matter how much they would complain later on.  I suppose I'm about to embark on similar journey.  For the next six months, or however long it takes me to complete my second book, I will constantly be screaming in caps lock about the past not leaving me alone.  And you can tell me I'm crazy to do something I don't have to do when it hurts, but people do it all the time. Passion trumps pain.  And sometimes we do things that hurt because not doing them would hurt even more.

**2012 Update: If you're wondering why I haven't been screaming in caps lock over this second novel, it's because I got a better story idea and decided to save this true story for my third novel. I will get to it, and when I do, it will be a lot less painful.


  1. I enjoy your point of view, it's different from so many that follow the "crowd"