Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Difference Between Fiction and Real Life

If it happened in a story, dropping a three-pound handweight on my foot would have had an aesthetic purpose.

It'd be symbolically or thematically appropriate; it would coincide and resonate with some other element of my life; it would be some sort of message or warning or trigger or - it would have meant something.

But because I live in real life and not in a story, it just means I had to spend two days with a baggie full of ice on my foot. Do you know how difficult it is to accomplish anything with a baggie of ice on your foot? Even intellectual work - "Yeah, since I'm sitting here anyway just open the damn file and focus, that's all I have to - oh, for crying out loud it fell out of the towel again better not leak all over the cables - Ow ow ow - oh, look, the color's really starting to come in now..."

We like narrative because it's structured and tidy, and isn't as full of irrelevant bits and distractions as real life. This is satisfying on a primal level; so satisfying, that people make up meanings for their real lives, in the teeth of the evidence, and try to structure Life so that it makes some kind of sense. Which leads to cruel absurdities like the theory that natural disasters are divine punishments for trivial manufactured "sins," or that bad things happen to us because we "deserve" them.

That's the big problem with "realism" as a genre. A truly realistic story would not be satisfying because it would have to be structureless, full of arbitrary boring meaningless crap that would anger the audience. If they wanted real life they wouldn't be reading the story, now, would they? Do not, ever, get so carried away with creating a slice of life that you forget to provide the primary pleasure of narrative.

All the writing advice you get about killing your darlings, not putting in anything that doesn't contribute to the effect, Chekov's gun on the mantelpiece - that's what it boils down to. Even stuff that's interesting or humorous or beautiful in itself, if it doesn't advance the story, interferes with the narrative tidiness and has to go. You can get away with more in a loosely-structured domestic novel than in a tightly-plotted thriller or a short story, but if you push the limits too far you lose the audience. It'll get bored or it'll get mad. One or the other.

You probably think you know an author who gets away with it, but it's an illusion. Even the great stream-of-consciousness works, the ones that swim in and out of your eyes as you read and make you feel like you're living in somebody else's head - take a step back and look at them. Mrs. Dalloway is as rigidly-structured as any Agatha Christie plot. It's just that the structure is cleverly designed to look structureless.

Personally I'm not very clever and have to do this largely by writing the story and then taking things out. And sometimes it's real hard to tell where to draw the line. Yeah, I can (and did) take out most of Len's food appreciation remarks in the lesbian western. I can convey the fact that Len's appetite is enormous without describing every meal she ate. That's pretty straightforward. But that bit where she gets lost on first coming into San Antonio - is the level of humorous detail I go in for there the right one for illustrating thematically how she has to feel her way through her life as a man, with the directions she gets from other people mostly confusing her? Or do I keep it because, as a San Antonian, I find it all so hilariously familiar?

I think it's the former, because every time I contemplate taking it out I feel like the manuscript has a big hole in it that can't be bridged by a sentence about nobody in San Antonio being able to give decent directions and what is up with the dang river? But will an audience feel that way?

(Will an audience ever get a chance to find out? She wonders, sighing and returning to the agent search.)

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