When Truth Doesn’t Work
I’ve been working on a project that has a strong autobiographical component. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can’t tell the literal truth. The truth doesn’t work.
Instead I’ve had to fictionalize wildly. And the weird part is, the more extravagantly I fictionalize, the more like the truth it sounds.
I was born in a crossfire hurricane
And I howled at my Ma in the drivin’ rain
Are you working with material that’s “true” or largely true? Are the characters in your narrative “real” or close to real? Then you’re wrestling with the same problem I am.
What exactly is that problem?
The problem is that we’re trying to convey an emotional reality—the truth of how we felt or how our protagonist feels. And we’re running head-on into the inability of the literal truth to convey that reality.
When Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, he was starting with the subjective experience of his (or the song’s hero’s) life, i.e. how that world felt from the inside. He understood that he couldn’t duplicate that subjective experience in the listener’s mind by reproducing the actual events that produced it for him …
I was born in a comfortable middle-class family
I was educated at the London School of Economics
How does Mick solve this problem? He creates in metaphor or fiction (i.e., stuff that didn’t literally happen) the story-facts that will produce in the listener’s mind the same subjective experience that the writer/protagonist felt in real life.
I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag
I was schooled with a strap right across my back
Consider another example. The “lost generation” of WWI returned from the horrors of trench warfare and the senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands feeling soul-devastated, hollowed-out, emasculated. So Ernest Hemingway, seeking to replicate that subjective experience in his post-war masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, has his protagonist Jake Barnes literally emasculated. A war wound has left Jake in that state.
But Hemingway doesn’t stop with the wound itself. He demonstrates the agony that this maiming produces in his protagonist. When we meet Jake, he is already in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful, charismatic woman who seems in many ways to be Jake’s soulmate. Worse, Brett is in love with Jake. Jake’s wound is thus a source of torment for both of them. Then, to twist the knife even deeper, Hemingway has Brett engage in a series of meaningless affairs before Jake’s eyes—and compels Jake to endure them, knowing not only that there’s nothing he can do to lessen the pain but also that his wound is at least partially the source of Brett’s recklessness and despair.
In other words, the subjective experience Hemingway is trying to convey to the reader—the soul-devastation and spiritual impotence of the generation ruined by WWI—is made objective and “real” by the fictional reality he has created for his protagonist.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may have had wonderful Mums who loved them dearly and never failed to provide a bowl of hot porridge before packing them off to grammar school. But maybe it didn’t feel that way to Mick and Keith, or, if they were writing not so much about themselves as about mates from their generation, maybe they reckoned that the years of post-WWII, post-Empire England had scarred their generation as much the First World War had devastated Hemingway’s.
I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right through my head
Sometimes “fact” is not enough. The reproduction of literal truth often does not produce in the reader the emotion we as artists are hoping to produce. We have to beef it up. We have to find the metaphor and then present that metaphor as real.
Oedipus doesn’t just want to sleep with his mother; he literally does it. He even marries her. Nor does he only fantasize about killing his father; his hand grasps the sword that literally takes the king’s life.
The moral for me, as I work, is “Don’t be afraid to open up the jet pack.”
I’m famous, the girls all love me
I’m making tons of money and having lots of fun
ain’t quite the same as
I’m Jumping Jack Flash
It’s a gas, gas, gas!