Mr. Daisey’s Story-Truth

If there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s a liar.

I’ve said many times to many people, “I do not lie.” Sometimes they look at me funny. “But you’re a writer,” they say. “All writers lie.” Trust me, I’m aware of the contradiction, but I stand by my original statement.

Reality can be a fluid thing. Memory, a subjective, slippery lens. I often confuse dream memories with waking memories. I have, in the past, gotten wrapped up in whole universes built on other people’s compulsive lies and my own faulty perceptions. I have become almost phobic about lies and lying, which may explain why I gravitate towards writing fiction. In writing nonfiction, I’m often afraid of all the things I might accidentally skew.

A few semesters ago, I took a fantastic seminar with Greg Martin on works which blurred the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Among other things, we read Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying. As the name would suggest, it is based almost entirely off of lies. Even though, throughout the seminar, we explored various ways of interpreting “concrete” truths, story truths, emotional truths, and everything in between to twist our stories for artistic effect, I never got comfortable with lying. I was no Slater. I admired her, but I knew I would never have the guts to go as far as she went. I had no reason to.

I was reminded of this class the other afternoon when listening to This American Life’s retraction of their story “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” Turns out that Daisey’s monologue about the horrific conditions in Chinese factories that supply Apple is largely fictionalized, and that caused quite a stir since the story was put out under the journalistic standards of “truth.” Daisey came onto the show for an interview and, although the host, Ira Glass, kept fishing for a complete public apology and an admission of Daisey’s lies, he insisted throughout that everything in the monologue was “true.” Maybe some of the events didn’t happen in the order he presented them. Maybe some of the people were composites. But everything happened, he said, more or less. Everything was “true to his experience” in China, and he wanted to convey that experience in a way that would reach people. Really reach them. Emotionally and viscerally. He wanted to stir them to action. As a writer, I get all that. The monologue was originally meant for the theatre, and within the context of theatre, those are legitimate claims. But here, Daisey was in the clutches of a journalistic eye and a very pissed off Ira Glass. More and more of his lies were exposed by the minute.

Part of me sympathized, but I was also horrified at Daisey’s complete inability to express his thoughts on artistic license and emotional vs. factual credibility. Throughout the interview, he continued to lie himself into corners and sounded more and more insane. In the end, all parties concluded that the monologue never should have been aired on This American Life. It had no place within journalism. As a writer, I could care less what the monologue did or didn’t exaggerate, twist, or fabricate, but I was angry that Daisey discredited an entire community of writers who grapple with the ethics of their craft daily. I felt like any one of us who had taken Greg’s class could have done a better job of explaining ourselves than Daisey had, but more importantly, being already mindful of our forms, probably never would have fallen into the predicament in the first place.

(If you have the time, listen to the show, if for no other reason than to learn what not to do.)

Now, I’m not some kind of truth-Nazi or anything. I don’t know what “the truth” is any more than you do. So let us all go and experiment and explore and blur every boundary that we can and twist reality and excavate the story-truths from the happening-truth. But for God’s sake, when we lie, let’s just be honest about it.

Day 25: Recreating the Writer’s Hunger

Today**, for almost twelve full hours, I sat in a chair and read  out loud 267 pages of the Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games.

It started on a whim.  Our neighbors were going to watch the movie and invited us along.  Neither Randi nor I had read the Hunger Games, and the writers in us wanted to read the book first.  “You’ve got time,” my neighbors said.  “It should take you a few hours.  It’s a fast read.”  They were going to watch the movie at 7.  That left us six hours.  Little did they know that we’d read the entire book out loud.

What you should know is that Randi and I read stories out loud fairly often, but usually during road trips, passing the fifteen hours to and from California (or eight hours to and from Oklahoma) with strings of short stories. But never have we sat and read an entire novel like that.  At least not in one sitting.

Along with reading short stories, we're also known to pull off the road to watch the sky

Along with reading short stories, we're also known to pull off the road to watch the sky...

Daniel Mueller, author of How Animals Mate & professor at UNM, calls the act of writing the most intimate of art forms.  Movies, artwork, photographs: in these, (here I generalize) the artist produces something that can be shared by a greater audience.  You know the drill: you sit in a movie theater, and everyone around you laughs, or cries, or cheers.  You stroll through an art gallery and people murmur around you, some on guided tours, some simply strolling along, stopping and going at the pieces that strike their fancies.  But writers.  We communicate with a reader in a one-on-one experience where the page (our medium) can completely disappear and our audience members can lose themselves for hours upon hours.  (At least if we are doing our jobs).

In “Your Brain on Fiction,” an article posted recently in the NY Times, Annie Murphy Paul explores this phenomena, pointing out the way reading causes physical reactions in our brains.  For instance, words like “lavender” and “soap” activate the sensory cortex, and words describing motion activate the motor cortex.  All of this culminating with a conclusion that we, as readers, intuitively know: that

reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’ Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps that is why I love the experience of reading something out loud.  It is the closest thing I can get to sharing that private, intimate experience with someone else.

Today, this marathon of reading (I was sipping tea with honey to keep my voice from completely dissolving) has reminded me of the joys of reading in a way I haven’t experienced in a very long time.  It is simply about the way you can lose yourself in a piece.  The way a writer can hold you for hours, locked into their imaginative world.  And at the end of the day, what better inspiration for a writer is there than that?  The ability to captivate?  To recreate?  To enthrall, through hunger, through to-do lists, through beautiful sunny days, to sit for hours on end, and lose one’s self in a story.

** please don’t forget that these posts are scheduled.  This particular post was written at 1:30am immediately after reading the final pages of the book.  Suffice to say, we missed the movie.

Day 14: Find the Things that Glitter at You: Advice via Pam Houston

I was lucky enough to attend Pam Houston’s reading this previous Monday (accompanied by friend and fellow blogger, Jenn Simpson).  If you haven’t had the chance to see Pam Houston read, do it.  I cannot state this strongly enough.  Not only is the new book amazing, the woman is a sheer force: strong presence, strong personality, insightful, and pretty damn funny.  Even though I’ve seen her read/heard her speak on four different occasions (twice in AWP and twice at the Taos Writers’ Conference), I was still captivated by her wisdom and her writing.  Here is my evidence:

Note the notes that wrap around my hand. When you watch her read, be sure to bring paper along with your pen to avoid ink poisoning.

For those inclined, here’s her remaining Book Tour.  In the mean time, straight from the writer’s hand (literally), here’s some writing advice I weened from Pam Houston.

Take a Regular Brain Dump

Pam Houston’s new book, Contents May Have Shifted is told in 144 vignette type stories.  There are 12 different sections.  Each section begins with a plane ride and is followed by 11 vignettes titled with a different location (“Madison, Wisconsin,” “Albuquerque, New Mexico,” “Fairbanks, Alaska,” etc).  All in all, the book adds up to a whole lot of places that span the entire world.  Though some of the locations repeat (“Davis, California,” for instance), many of them are new.  One audience member wanted to know how she kept track of everything.  Do you write things down, the woman asked, or do you simply remember things in such stark detail? (And believe me, when you read the book, the woman is a master at descriptions, but that is for another blog post or three..).

Pam Houston answered as follows:  You know that part of the plane ride when the pilot lets you know you are an hour from your destination (fifty minutes, forty minutes, the time might change, but the message is the same: prepare yourself for the impending landing)?  Houston uses that announcement as a signal.  While other people use the restroom (her joke), she gets out her notebook and does a “Brain Dump.”  Details, facts, memories.  It doesn’t have to be complete scenes, coherent thoughts, or even complete sentences.  Along with various facts, her goal is to capture “all the things that glittered” at her.

She recommended that writers do the same.  Find a constant in your daily life–after you get home from yoga or after you drop your kids off at school–and use it as a signal to dump the contents of our brain onto paper (metaphorically, of course).  That way, you have the details when you need them, and this stuff can become the raw materials of our creative work.  Also, as an added bonus, whenever you are blocked, it’s easy to become unblocked.  All you have to do is pull out your notebook and search for the “things that glittered at you.”

Day 1: Set Your Goals

Since last year’s Writer’s March, I’ve been thinking a lot about goals.  What makes a goal “Good”?   For the purposes of this Writer’s March, I would like to define a “good” goal as a goal that is, above all else, “achievable.”

4 things to keep in mind when setting your GOAL

Start Small but Don’t be Afraid to Push Yourself

If you aren’t already writing daily, don’t jump into five hours/day.  I was writing an hour a day consistently, and when I bumped myself up to 90 minutes, I struggled to keep it.  I grew discouraged, and as a result, I stopped writing.  Don’t let that happen to you.  If all you can do is 15 minutes/day, don’t be afraid to say it.  Chances are that you’ll write for much longer anyway.  Remember, the purpose of Writer’s March is to find a way for writing to fit into your life.  They say that it takes 30 days to create a habit.  Why not make the habit a goal as well?

That said: whenever you sit down to write, aim for more.  Can the 15 minutes become 30?  Can the 30 become an hour?  Just because you’ve set a goal, doesn’t mean you can’t surpass it at every chance you get.

Be as SPECIFIC as Possible.  

They say that goals are better achieved if they are measurable.  In other words, if possible, make your goals concrete.  Here are some of the Current Challenger goals posted so far:

  • Melanie Unruh’s Monthly Goal: To write 4 stories in the month
  • Lenore Gusch’s Monthly Goal: To write a short story
  • Teresa E. Gallion’s Daily Goal: To write a poem a day

What I envy about those training for marathons are the way they are always advertising their running times and training schedules.  Ran six miles today.  Ran ten miles today.  Think of the daily goals as the same thing: what are you doing each day (writing and for how long?),  and what is your version of the marathon (a novel, a story, a single poem)?  And don’t forget: the act of building a writing habit is also an excellent monthly goal.

Once the Goals Are Set: Keep Them!

When I was at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2010, the question posed at every reading was this: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? John Dufresne, fiction writer and author of Is Life Like this?, gave this advice:  KEEP YOUR BUTT IN THE SEAT.

These are words I have heard so often I can no longer count them.  The first time was through Greg Martin in a Creative Non-Fiction workshop.  Greg advocated for a minimum of 3 hours/day for his MFA Graduate students.  He firmly believed that even if you couldn’t write a word, you had to sit there anyway.  As Greg put it, you are training your body to write the same way a runner trains his/her body.  You sit there staring so that the next time, when the inspiration strikes, you are ready for it.  If you’d like to hear more about Greg’s theory, you can visit his famous TREADMILL JOURNAL (for writers).

And finally: Don’t Let the Goal Stand in for the Task

Derek Sivers in this Ted Talk says it best:

According to Sivers:

“Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal make it less likely to happen.  Anytime you have a goal, there [is]…some work that needs to be done to be done in order to achieve it.  Ideally, you would not be satisfied until you have actually done the work, but when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that…the mind is tricked into the feeling that it’s already done, and then once you feel that satisfaction you are less motivated to do the hard work necessary.”

In a way, perhaps this Ted Talk is saying that Writer’s March is a bad idea.  But I don’t think you have to look at it this way.  Especially when, at the end, he says that if you must say your goals out loud,

state it in a way that gives you no satisfaction.  Such as, I really want to run this marathon so I need to train five times a week and kick my ass if I don’t, okay?

In others, rather than focusing on the end result, focus on the difficult path (because writing daily is not easy).   But whenever possible: STAY SILENT.  For my purposes, I’ll keep my thoughts about my novel to myself.  And if you must talk about your writing, why not talk about Writer’s March (…ahem…shameless promotion…)

Got a Goal?

If you want your name and your goal to be on the “official” Challengers Page, please SIGN UP TO JOIN THE MARCH.