Monday, September 15, 2014

As True as Your Last Royalty Statement from the Book You Never Wrote

Your preoccupation with telling lies or the truth leads you into the prickly, thorny path between fiction and memoir.  The ease with which fiction may be conflated with telling lies comes from the notion that fiction is invented.  This notion hits a speed bump with the revelation that characters, however invented their heritage, nevertheless provide a truthful portrait of what a particular character thinks and feels.

Many writers you know build their characters by deciding what those individuals want.  Next step is to attempt some physical visualization of the character, which often involves picking a real life person as an armature about which to begin wrapping personality traits.  No writer you know, nor any of the writers past and present, whose work you admire, has ever confessed to a deliberate construction of characters who act contrary to their goals or beliefs.

The inherent truths of a character begin with the goals of that character.  The character may lie or distort the truth to accomplish a stated goal.  Iago may tell Othello things he knows to be untrue, but these lies are a part of Iago's purpose for being on stage.

One character's vision of another character may be a misreading or inconsistent vision, or clouded by personal agenda.  A policeman may, in spite of some misgivings about the innocence or guilt of a suspect,  have an agenda for wanting to believe the suspect is guilty of a particular crime.

The author may also have a nuanced agenda to the point where the behavior of a certain character sparks conflicting views.  A splendid and telling example of this dramatization of reporting about a character comes when we hear of the final moments in the life of that great Shakespearean scalawag, Sir John Falstaff.  For starters, we are not at all certain he is an actual sir, rather a pretender.

While his death is described to us by a tavern maid, Mistress Quickly, some of us may agree with her descriptions of the old boy going to his death as he went on a carouse, calling for another round of wine, remembering the occasional wench,  Others hearing Mistress Quckly's account, will have cause to conclude that Sir John has become fearful for the fate of his immortal soul and wishes to renounce the roister, the carouse, and the venal excess in order to seek forgiveness and, thus, take his last breath in repentance.  Not that Mistress Quickly introduces these thoughts or suspicions.  She can be seen as telling the truth as she saw and heard it.

Much the same sort of last minute opting for salvation is seen at the deathbed of the elder Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited.   Will he or won't he?  Was that a nod or a scant twitch?  Once again, the potential for a split decision hovers about the characters.  In the Shakespeare, you can argue that much of his work has hints of his possible Catholic faith.  Evelyn Waugh made no bones about his Catholicism, so wouldn't it be a certainty that old Marchmain repented at the end?

For all Shakespeare and Waugh may have been practicing Catholics, taking the sacraments to the end, they were also storytellers, well aware of the dramatic intensity of ambiguity, where any of several possible truths might have applied.  They have left such matters where they belong, with us, to argue among ourselves and within the solitary point of meditation.

If we were to offer the assumption that nonfiction, say memoir, was a different matter, wherein truth was a requisite, wouldn't we be staring down the same uncertainty?  Nonfiction is a description of truths seen by the reporter, but are these truths any more likely to be accurate because the medium is nonfiction?  Were some of the exchanges of dialogue in memoir actual or only the observer's best guess of what was said?

Throughout the history of drama and history, writers have given us another filter by which the truth becomes manifest.  That filter is, of course, us, adding to the dialectic, the conversation, the argument about how much we should believe of the outcome of any given account, the outrageous fictions of The Simpsons, the historical plays of Shakespeare, and the wrenching dramas of Tennessee Williams.

We carry any number of individual filters within us, each one at some pains to maintain a vivid sense of what is true and what isn't.  More often than not, these filters know the difference between fantasy/wish-fulfillment and Reality, as in The Reality.  Most of them would not knowingly lie to the others.  But all of them have secrets they are unwilling to share and truths they are not ready to accept.

The best we can do is wait it out, doing our best to educate these individuals who live as squatters within that cluttered and shadowy edifice we call The Psyche.

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