Sunday, March 4, 2007

fictional truth

An essay by Frederick Reiken in The Writer’s Chronicle, Mar./Apr. 2007, titled “What is True?—Thoughts on Fictional 'Truth,' Unconscious Metaphor, and Celery” had so many good parts to it, and I want to try and capture a couple of them here.

One of the ideas is that a ‘fictional truth’ needs to rise above the ordinary, factual, black-and-white happenings of real life if we want it to support a literary work. We’ve often heard, in workshops and such, ‘just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.’ Reiken’s essay used an excerpt from a short piece titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” included in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam fiction work, The Things They Carried, as follows.

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on the grenade and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

You’d feel cheated if it never happened.

Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true war story that never happened.

That provides such a great illustration of literary, fictional truth. Another idea I valued in the essay touched on a fiction writer’s use of story ambiguity. Quoting work by author John Berger, Reiken says “Authentic writing depends primarily on a writer’s willingness to stay faithful to the fundamental ambiguity of experience.” Also, “a writer who attempts to close too many ambiguities at once without opening others will run into a problem…” The idea of keeping ambiguities afloat during a fictional work seems so important to me, to extend the suspense of events, and to keep the reader turning the pages. One of my favorite creative writing teachers, John Gardner, also gets some play in Reiken’s essay, on topics from Gardner’s book entitled, “On Moral Fiction,” and dealing a lot with the ‘metaphors’ of the essay title. In sum, this is an essay I’m going to have to read over a couple of times—good stuff.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Jack,
I was finishing up the Reiken piece a few minutes before clicking on your blog to find your comments. Is that timing or what?
And you're right, Reiken offers a lot of rich insights into crafting a story. Like you, I'm going to read it again and again to learn what I can.

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