Truth vs. Fact

Facts bring us to knowledge but stories lead to wisdom.

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, “Introduction” to Kitchen Table Wisdom

Story as Experience

Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction

Writing Surprise (!)

If you’ve taken a writing class (especially one with me because I am obsessed with this idea), you’ve probably heard the Flannery O’Connor quote about how endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable.  Tall order? Yes.

I once heard Ira Glass speak about how important the element of surprise is in the stories he and his crew choose to air on This American Life.* I don’t remember the exact quote, just that he alerted me to the fact that writing has to be surprising, at least on some level, to sustain interest. The worst thing a friend can say after reading a draft is, “the ending was too predictable.” (Clutch my heart and fall over.)

I’m thinking about how hard it is to write surprise in stories and essays. It’s just easy (and dare I say, lazy) to be predictable in our writing.  I don’t know who said it to me, but I think surprise happens on the page when we explore options; when we don’t just go with the first idea.  Sometimes our first idea is great, but often, our second idea is even better.

This is the opposite of taking a successful standardized test, by the way, because standardized tests are the opposite of art.

Exploring options means understanding what our options are, which means reading a lot.  That is what it means to “read like a writer”–we’re picking up options, techniques, interesting ways of telling a story, from people who took those risks before us.  Often that means we have to read things twice (once for plot, once for technique).  It also means we have to read slowly, asking the question, “what is the writer doing right now with this sentence/paragraph/chapter?”

Surprise is harder to accomplish when writing creative non-fiction, because we’ve literally been there and done that and now we’re writing about it.  I’m wondering if maybe surprise in a creative essay is more about what you do with what happened–how you reflect upon the facts–than writing the facts themselves.  That is a major difference between fiction and non-fiction. The latter must not only tell a story but make meaning out of that story, and the quality of the essay, I think, has more to do with how the writer reflects than how the writer narrates.

In fiction,  we need to sit back and let our characters do surprising things, often terrible, horrible, disturbing things, but not always.  Mostly, things we don’t expect them to do but when they do them we say, “Ah. That makes sense.” Hence, inevitable surprise. Watch Mad Men or The Wire for example after great example of this.

*I take writers less seriously when they tell me they’ve never heard This American Life.  If you love storytelling then you love this show. Period. (Ha. Feeling a little sassy this morning.)

Sondheim Wisdom for All of Us

I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals.  For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).

I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth.  I judge them according to three things:

1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)

2) Lyrics

3) Music

I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t.  And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?

I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process.  Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:

A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.

Sounds like a story, right?

That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him.  This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:

One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.

Amen.