Friday, January 13, 2006

Tell Me a Story

"More Americans may remember a story about a goat than any facts about 9/11"
I write a lot of my fiction in the first person.  Even when the voice is more or less me, it’s never exactly me, yet many readers act as if it must have been my real life..  My father was never tried for treason.  I’ve never fallen in love with a character in a video game.  I’m not a middle-aged woman selling a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  I’m not an Ameri-Asian woman who volunteered for the first Gulf War to get out of the house. B  There was a time when I thought of it as a compliment.  “Gee, I must have been really convincing.”

I don’t think that any more.  I think a lot of readers simply like to “believe” in a story, any story.  I imagine it’s easier when the writer happens to be talented, but I suspect it even happens for writers who aren’t so talented.  There’s something about the human mind that craves connected events in the world.  When you manage to create a narrative,  people actually prefer it to reality.  As a result, they most willingly drop contrary facts, give credulity to the preposterous, or even add in details for you simply to keep the story/narrative intact.  

This seems to have worked in James Frey and JT Leroy/Abbott’s favor.  The personas of the two authors just helped to fill in the stories they had written.  A variety of people simply wanted JT Leroy, the survivor of the most extreme abuse, and James Frey, the full blown outlaw, to exist.  It’s also the same instinct that seems to be working in Sam Alito’s favor right now with the “They made his wife cry by distorting this fine man’s record.”

As I tried to follow the Alito hearings, I was struck by how poorly the Democratic leadership seems to understand this. Instead of developing a counter-narrative, they kept trying to argue, corner, and expose.  Ronald Reagan was extremely good at it.  I remember watching Walter Mondale talk about the need to raise taxes in 1984 and Reagan simply brushing all the very real numbers aside with “this is a great country built on rewarding hard work” and “never underestimate America”.  

A long time ago, I remember reading in a psychology text that the mind has a capacity for both seeing and finding “faces” in images.  In 2005, the faces and story that had the most impact on the war turned out to be the various gold star mothers who took on the president.   For most of August, the president road his mountain bike and played right into the story.  It feels like this lesson was lost on the Democratic leadership except perhaps for John Murtha.  For a quarter of a century, the Republicans have understood that America gets its news and makes its decisions based on People Magazine not the National Section of Time.  

I think it was Poe who said that if a gun appears in a story, it must go off.  The democrats seem to have an odd variation on that.  All they see is the smoking gun and they totally forget about the story.  Once, the public believes the “I” in the story, the votes follow.  

Given the right story, you could probably nominate and confirm J.T. Leroy for the Supreme Court.  

story about stories


At 1/13/2006 11:58:00 PM, Blogger Alan Howard said...

I think the reason people believe it's you telling the truth is because there's nothing to tell them otherwise. There's no titles on the blog saying it's about fictional stories. There's nothing in the stories to say they're fictional stories. People who know nothing about you or the site are just simply going to assume that you're writing about your life, because your blog doesn't tell them otherwise.

At 1/14/2006 12:06:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks, but all my stories that are fiction actually are marked (fiction) in the title with the exception of one or two older stories. They're also sorted under fiction.

The humor stuff isn't generally marked "humor", but it might well not be funny to a lot of readers.

At 1/14/2006 03:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ye gods have mercy, I hate having to label ironies, jokes, fictions.

All this palaver about 'reality' is pretty fishy anyhow. There cannot be facts about your or any life except for the fleeting present which is instantly partial & distorted in recall.

You are utterly right about story and its compulsion in our psyches. Tune in some unknown soap opera some afternoon, &, however fine you are, within 5 minutes, you'll compellingly 'want to know what happens.' Patterns are us.

I'll never forget a British tv thriller in which our hero has to have his dear girlfriend shot. It was so shocking that I was disturbed at this betrayal of story for days after.

At 1/15/2006 08:05:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'm definitely against having to label "jokes" as "Jokes". If you have to, then something's generally gone wrong at one end of the circuit.
As for letting people know something is "fiction", I'll take a Borgesian tact on it. There are really a few questions bound up in the whole was it fiction or autobiography business.
1) did it actually happen to you in more or less that way? Much too literal for me and far from literary.

2) Was it real? Well if it finds the truth in some important way. Doesn't that make it more real than anything we here in simple shared-mass reality can fathom? I've seen whole cultures fool themselves over issues like war, right and wrong etc, because of some mass hallucination about "real".

3) Was it fiction? This, of course, is the worst imaginable question. It's all fiction. It's all imagined. How much do we consciously imagine vs. simply seem to observe and perceive, really good writers blur that line all the time.

Once a story actually does transfer into someone else's imagination/rumination I suspect it's become way more real than that thing most of us simply accept as "reality".
I think "story" has a Kantian resonance that occupies a space beyond both pure reason and sense observation.
If you get a story to resonate politically, it's real, it's true, it's ringing inside that other person's head in a way that the so called facts have a horrible time disrupting.


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