–Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads
I heard authenticity in writing comes when you write what you know. Here’s another quote from American playwright David Mamet: “When you sit down to write, tell the truth from one moment to the next and see where it takes you.” It seems a straightforward method, but there are so many ways to sanitize our truths that you have to ask yourself, “Am I being honest?”
In fiction, we’re building worlds—painting fantasy from thin air or expounding on this green marble place we call reality—and we have control over which elements we show our reader. Do we talk about the weather? Do we keep it gritty—blood, farts and bullshit included? Do we write our same three best friends into every story because that’s what we know? (I’m looking at you, Seth, James and Jay.)
The truth according to Seth Rogen.
However the magic happens, as writers, we make the rules, and we try to stick to them. That’s one version of truth. For example, if people can fly in our book, then nobody bats an eye at the girl jumping off the building and coasting away on angel’s wings. And, when it comes to real world facts, we don’t try to fudge them. The Eiffel Tower is in Paris, so we don’t stick it in Bermuda. But let’s talk individual truths and “keeping it real.” Like politics or religion. The truths we keep a secret because they’re too hard to expose. The scary stuff.
Most writers try to keep it “real” without ruffling feathers or exposing their darkest inner thoughts because anyone with a head on his shoulders knows you can’t afford to offend the market. But, that’s not quite true. Writers who think like that are missing the nuance of how being brutally honest can take a good story to greatness.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was about a kid shoved in a closet by his unloving relatives, already a subject usually handled with care. But for kicks, she added a homosexual school administrator, some magicism (hate against Muggles), a dirty love triangle where the “good guy” doesn’t quite get the girl, and a mega-bunch of other details you wouldn’t ordinarily expect in books that were written essentially for middle grade and young adult readers.
Then there’s George R. R. Martin, considered a modern-day Tolkien. He’s no stranger to writing the truths people find uncomfortable. In his Game of Thrones series, Martin came under fire for scenes depicting violence against women, and in his defense Martin explained:
“[I]f you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Literature is studded with similar success stories of books that explore the facets of human nature we find most unsettling or those that touch us in a gentler way with the same hard, thought provoking truths.
In my new book, Deserving, I tackled some of this. I wanted to write a compelling love story about a couple that was falling apart, because often in romance novels we get the sunny-side up version of being in love, and I think “not quite perfect” is a better way to describe most marriages and relationships. Juxtaposed against that backdrop, I wanted to tell the story of “the one that got away.”
What I ended up with when I paired the two narratives was this complex menage a trois tale of Matteo and Angelina Fuentes who—in order to add spice to their failing marriage—hook up with Angelina’s high school crush, Kristi. Truth is, lots of everyday couples do some eyebrow raising things to stay connected. Also, just about every one of us loves our partner to pieces but still kinda miss the one that got away.
Of course, that’s not the only controversial thing going on in the book. The harder writing came when talking about wealth disparities, life for a single mom, the good, bad and ugly of raising a child with autism. I told my truth, but I tried mightily to tell more than that: The part of the narration that belongs to the characters and not the writer. I told their truth.
Take a look at the humility Kristi had to exhibit in this scene:
She dropped her head. “Sir, I need a job,” she said quietly. Matteo gently tugged the folder from her limp grasp and flipped it open. His brown eyes scanned the resume, and he sighed, handing it back. She had major gaps in her work history, and when she had been working, they were short stents.
“I hate to say it, but you’re simply not qualified for a managerial position. I appreciate you taking the time to come down here to personally let me know your concerns. We at Fuentes Affordable Housing have a mission to improve and respect our communities, and, I assure you, the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible. Now, as for work…Do you know your way around a mop and broom?”
“I…Yes.” She swallowed. “I’m a single mom. Of course I know how to clean.”
Yet, despite her humility, the reader is allowed a sense she begrudgingly accepts her lower position because she’s a desperate single mother in need of a job, and she’ll take anything she can get. There’s an ugly kernel of truth in that.
Perhaps, as Mamet recommends, if we take it from one scene to the next, the truth won’t be too overwhelming to tell. So, the next time you sit down to work on your story, make sure you’re ready to be brutally honest. Don’t worry about ruffling feathers. Birds can’t read. 🙂
Read. Write. Be. Entertained.