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You’ve seen it countless times—films “based on a true story” that leave out so many details, or portray things that never happened, really. Why do they do that? Aren’t we supposed to “Tell the truth and nothing but the truth,” so help us?
I’ve heard from several editors that they reject a work only to have the writer cry out, “But it really happened that way!”
An agent once told Anne Lamott, “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.”
What separates art from reality is a deliberate selection. A particular focus.
One thing that really bothers me about 3D movies is that I’m forced to look at what the director wants me to look at. Everything else is blurred out to simulate how human vision works. I get a certain pleasure out of watching what is going on in the background, so that annoys me. But when you’re writing, it’s a good idea to think of what you put in to your work as whatever is being focused on by a camera lens. There is always going to be a lot of other stuff going on, and hopefully you’ll always have the problem of having too many ideas, but what you select is what is important. Be very selective as a writer, especially in your rewrites. Your editor and your readers will thank you.
Bending the truth
“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.”—Anne Lamott
“The truth is not distorted here, but rather a certain distortion is used to get at the truth.”—Flannery O’Connor
Sometimes we need to sacrifice the truth of specific events and details on the altar of literature. (And sometimes we need to change names and places to avoid a lawsuit.) When writing poetry or “creative nonfiction,” you can change small things. You can leave some things out, like the historians and journalists do, but in fiction you can also create new details. Add symbols, edit dialogue, change details to suit the greater truth of the piece, that is, the theme. Chances are you won’t realize the theme until after your first draft, which is why you practice and you rewrite.
“Telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose hope.”—Anne Lamott
Take a true event—an event you remember vividly—and write about it, being selective of what you include. Length: About 300–800 maximum words for prose, or fewer than 30 lines for poetry.
Decide what needs to remain “under the water” in the iceberg of your story. Print out my Storyberg worksheet here.
Read “Polaroids” by Anne Lamott, if you can. If you can’t, buy a copy of Bird by Bird and then read it. Then take a news article and rewrite it creatively. Think especially about focus, selectivity, and theme. Length: About 300–800 maximum words for prose, or fewer than 30 lines for poetry.
Just for Fun
Play Pottermore, and realize just how much Rowling wrote but left out of the Harry Potter novels.