Thursday, November 19, 2009

That Song Was Dinner

photo by D. [SansPretentionAucune] on flicker

I wasn't going to post today. I'm signing off The Literary Lab for a few weeks until January due to some personal stuff, but last week I said I'd do this post, so here it goes.

I brought up the issue of honesty in writing in my "They've Adapted" post. Honesty is a touchy subject. There were some great comments and ideas that got me thinking what makes writing honest, and how I can identify it in my own writing and others.

I'll begin with mirrors.

Do you ever feel like you're looking in the mirror and you can't even see yourself? I've done that a few times. It's as if you're dressed up for a show, decked out from head to foot, your makeup caked on, your lips bright red, your eyes popping like a peacock's plumage. In fact, you might even feel like a peacock. It might feel splendid. It might feel ridiculous. It depends on you.

I think our stories are mirrors. I've always felt this way. After I read something I've written it's as if I am looking into a mirror at myself. Sometimes it's a fun-house mirror all warped and frightening. Sometimes it's a lake with ripples. Sometimes it's a perfectly oval piece of glass showing me exactly what I am - and that's the scariest mirror of all.

Now I'll move on to music.

One of my favorite movies is Music & Lyrics with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I know it's a chick flick, but the show is brilliant on many levels (and you'll see this if you grew up in the 80's), but one of the things I love most about it is how much it gets to the root of what remains honest in our work, our writing, and what we choose to share with others.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie is this conversation:

Alex: It doesn't have to be perfect. Just spit it out. They're just lyrics.

Sophie: "Just lyrics"?

Alex: Lyrics are important. They're just not as important as melody.

Sophie: I really don't think you get it.

Alex: Oh. You look angry. Click your pen.

Sophie: A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex.

Alex: I so get that.

Sophie: But then, as you get to know the person, that's the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It's the combination of the two that makes it magic.

Magic. That's what seems to happen when I manage to get honesty into my writing. It's like a memorable, catchy song where everything comes together and it makes me feel a mixture of emotions that reach more deeply than I thought was possible. I look into the mirror and I see me, but I don't see me. It has become a creation that took on a life of its own. My honesty gave it that life.

Throughout Music & Lyrics Sophie fights for honesty in her work. Several of the characters seem to be taking it away from her - vying to please the audience instead. Alex, the other main character, learns a valuable lesson in teaching himself how to say what he really wants to say. In the end, he writes a song that Sophie calls "Dinner" - her version of what rings honest and true.

Now I'll bring up your comments.

Amy Tate said:

But you are so right -writing is a performance, but it has to be our own. The only sort of writer that I know how to be is myself. And I've finally reached the point where I'm o.k. with that - published or not.

Lost Wanderer said:

Honesty comes from writing what you want without worrying about impressing anyone, or without worrying about how it will stand out. If it's well-written and if you have written in your unique way, it will be different than others.

That's a key point, I think - being okay with ourselves. It's a tough place to get to. It can be an uncomfortable journey - one that I'm still taking, actually.

Angel Zapata had an interesting thought:

Don't ever write from the heart. The heart will mislead you, have you question the emotions. Write from the ear. Listen to what your characters have to say and put it to paper. Don't put words in their mouths either or try to jazz up their speech. Write it how you hear it, not how you'd like to see it. Honestly, that's how I write.

This is true. I recently received some critiques from a good friend of mine on a chapter of my book, Monarch. She was shocked at a character's choices, feelings, and reactions to another character's confession. And after she pointed it out I was shocked too! I realized that for the entire year I've been writing this book I've been ignoring my character's pleas to be heard. Sucks for my poor character, Lilian, and for me. I'm going to start listening now.

Letting our characters speak for themselves is honesty, but I also feel that, like a song, there's another aspect that makes it magic - YOU.

Nobody can tell a story like you do. Nobody.

If you try and take things from other writings you've read and studied (and most of us do this subconsciously), if you try to be clever, to impress, to be anything other than what you are, most of your readers will sense it. Davin says:

I think that some stories can succeed without relying on honesty. Many books are written as an escape. But, I think readers can tell when something is written honestly.

It's true. I've set aside books many times because they didn't feel honest to me. I didn't think of it that way: "I can't read this. The writer isn't being honest with me, his writing, or his characters. I will put this away now." No. It usually just doesn't capture my interest and I can't read any further. However, I do think Davin has a point about some stories succeeding without relying on honesty. They can. I've read many of them, and it works. I love to listen to some songs that aren't necessarily teeming with emotional honesty. They're entertaining. Something about them pulls me in.

But I must argue that it is the honest movies, honest songs, honest writing that separate themselves from everything else. As I judge entries for our Genre Wars contest it seems like I'm drawn to the stories that feel the most honest.

In the end, there's two aspects of writing that I find the most difficult, the most important to creating that MAGIC. First there's this, as Scott kindly explained in his comments:

The most honest I am is when I'm most invisible in the writing, when I'm not editorializing but simply presenting my characters as truthfully and as sincerely as I can.

Like the lyrics, I'd say - letting our characters speak for themselves (this is sooo much easier said than done). That's the first kind of honesty I can sense in writing. The other is the actual writing, the melody - what carries the lyrics. How is the story presented? Does it feel like the author is uncomfortable with presentation, with using flashbacks, dumping back story, using elaborate descriptions? Or does all that work seamlessly with everything else? If so, that's when it feels honest to me - when the writer is so comfortable with himself and the story he needs to tell that all that's left is . . . the story.

When I write something like that I look into the mirror and see me, but transformed. I think that's what the slippery term "voice" might be. The writer is recognizable, but they've created something honestly outside of themselves.

This has turned into a very long post. Hmmm. Many thoughts to share. I think I'll go eat some dinner now. Start cooking! I'll see you all in a few weeks.

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Those are some awesome thoughts. You've really got me thinking today.

  2. I respect your thoughts, Michelle, and really relate to the comparison of stories to songs. There IS something magic about when stories come together just perfectly. It’s a wonderful combination of prose, dialogue, character relationship and heart. Essentially it shines with passion.

    Because this post is about honesty in writing, I suppose my sincere reaction to “listening to our characters” is probably in order. It surprises me because in the past, it was easy for me to say developing your characters was about flowing with what they wanted, really hearing them and getting their stories on paper. But you know what? Today that idea really felt like an irritating fly that won’t leave me alone.

    To me, the magic of a character comes not from us foregoing writing from the heart and paying more attention to what our characters are trying to tell us, it comes from knowing our characters as well as we know our hearts. The magic comes from being in sync with them in a way that is…seamless. No bumps in the transition of their emotions. No gaps in their consistency. Whether writing characters that we love or hate, I truly believe it’s all about heart. If we can’t FEEL anything for our characters, and simply just listen to them like we’re conducting an interview, then I wonder how easy it will be for readers to relate to them. Or empathize with them. Or at the very least pity them.

    A story with heart evokes emotion. Your categories of songs are a perfect example. There are songs that we enjoy because they are entertaining. There are others we LOVE because they draw such a poignant emotion from us that we cannot help but be moved. Touched. Left just a little fuller in heart than we were before the melody and the lyrics came our way.

    Sorry about the length of this but thank you for the post, Michelle. I think it’s helped me realize something wonderful about my new manuscript.

  3. Thanks for following through on this post, Michelle—I’ve been waiting all week!
    This was an issue I had actually never given any thought to (guess that’s why I love this blog—you guys always get me thinking like a writer, not just regular old me).

    For me, there’s a lot to take away from this:
    “Not editorializing but simply presenting my characters as truthfully and as sincerely as I can.”
    Even when I write as a 32 yr-old guy, I feel as if “When I write something like that I look into the mirror and see me, but transformed.”
    I appreciate how you connect it to voice. That “the writer is recognizable, but they've created something honestly outside of themselves.”

    A lot to think about, and a lot of courage to muster.

  4. Most excellent post, Glam. Hope that everything gets smoothed out and you can start to blog again! We'll miss you.

  5. I shaved my mustache and goatee once and didn't recognize myself in the mirror for a week afterwards. tricked my roommates too.

    Great dialogue snippet about the lyrics and melody!

    I try to make my characters honest to each other and to the story. IF I have succeeded on that front, my own opinion doesn't matter as much.

    Angel's approach to using your ear instead of your heart is nothing short of brilliant, very well stated.

  6. Again, the honesty in literature. It's a fascinating topic, because how can you teach it? How to recognize it in books we read? We can talk all we want about how it works for us, but the creative process is so maddeningly individual that our methods may simply not work for another writer.

    I think when you say "all that's left is... the story" you're hitting close to the mark, though, because that's what's ultimately judged, that's what has to pass the reader test. The reader only experiences the story, has no idea of how the author wrote it (whether with breezy facility or grinding angst). The story is all, and Scott's reference to authorial invisibility is more than a little apropos.

    On another note, I wholeheartedly agree with the strangeness of seeing something we've created take on a life outside of our tangled little minds. Those mirrors aren't just reflecting us back to ourselves now, they're reflecting us to the world at large. That's a fearful and wonderful thing (apologies to King Dave).

  7. The comments on this post are really interesting. It's reassuring for me to see that people have different opinions on the value of honesty and if it can even really be recognized. Sometimes, I think making one's writing "feel" honest, is just another trick of the trade.

  8. I read somewhere that you had to be passionate about your writing. I think that goes along with honesty as well.

  9. Excellent post. I agree about the mirror. Right now, I'm telling a story about a brighter view of my mirror and it's very foreign to me. I've gotten used to the warped view and it's strange to see through this version of the looking glass. The characters are demanding honesty from me and it isn't a natural honesty FOR me. It's been hard to know who's doing the talking.

  10. Thanks for the post. It really spoke to me.
    As I venture for the first time into 1st person with my WIP, I'm starting to worry that I let my MC do what people do and hide behind her humor instead of delving into the issues. I want the 1st person perspective to make it more honest, not less.

  11. This is very interesting and certainly got me thinking! Not sure if I fully understand your post and the comments, nor am I sure where I fit here because it seems I have a different definition of honesty. Whenever I say honesty in a fiction-writing context, I mean as much honesty as possible about real life as portrayed through a fictional lens. Going on that definition, I find most fiction dishonest. Like many writers work on making their characters seem "real," but I don't think characters must seem real because they can never BE real. They're constructs. Any possible "truths" lay behind and around them. Claiming too much truth in characters seems like conveying lies.

    Real-life wisdom may be the only truth fictions can have. And that wisdom may simply be in the form of lessons the creator herself has learned in her own personal life--that's the other area where honesty comes in: how personal the writing seems.

    If you (impersonal) could use every available page on the planet, both real and virtual, I doubt you'd even come close to capturing a single live human on paper. There aren't enough pages. Writers must do their best within the limitations of their chosen medium, but learning where the boundaries are is the first step. Pages always seem too tiny to fit living breathing animals on.

    Guess what I'm really (more simply) saying is today I see too much writing focus on creating "real" characters rather than portraying the experience of being real humans. The latter probably can be conveyed; the former doesn't really exist. The latter seems a truth; the former seems a lie.

    Anyway, have a really good break--I hope it's for a good reason and that you're doing okay!

  12. I'm pretty sure that I don't think in terms of honesty when I write, and I'll add my voice to F.P.'s when I say I'm maybe not sure what you mean by "honesty" in writing. So I don't in any way disagree with you here, because I don't get what you mean, not really. Though I am, of course, a big fan of Hugh Grant.

    Certainly I'm going to write from the point of view of my morals and ethics and personal history, even if I don't want to make any kind of moral/ethical statement. But I don't write to promote any particular point of view or to give readers any specific ideas. Really, what I try to do is tell stories. I think that's the main thing to remember: the story, and the needs of the story. The needs of the writer are few, and all have to do with being able to tell the story, I think. Frankly, I don't care much about how the writer felt about the story or how honest they were when telling it. The story just has to be well-told and true to itself. When I think about "honesty" in writing, I guess, I mean things like not cheating the reader by manipulating the plot or by using sentimentality and by having the characters remain internally consistant (at least as internally consistant as a real person is).

    I am suspicious of declarations about the writer's passion or heart or honesty, even when I'm the one making those declarations. For my part, at least, the best writing I do is that done with dispassion, looking at the story as an object, and not looking at myself at all. Just as I don't care what "Turn of the Screw" says about Henry James, I don't care what my stories might say about me. The less, the better, in my opinion.

    Still, and I apologize for going on so long but I plead a cold and possible fever, there is something going on in a lot of writer (me included) that has us thinking about how we approach our writing. I have a working theory that it's got something to do with the glut of vapid books on the market now, and how we situate ourselves with/against/among those and if we are possibly feeling the need to excuse and explain the reaching towards depths we do, if we're part of the deep crowd. Maybe.

  13. Heady stuff here. Great insight into the human mind, writing and honesty.

  14. I really enjoyed this post. All of my characters are unique, and some look and act very different than I do, but they all reflect me in some way. I like how you broke this down.

  15. Sorry, it took me so long to get to this. I didn't think you were posting.

    Excellent thoughts. I love that movie too. Great application of what you're saying. I've been trying to be a lot more honest in my writing this week and it's helping a lot. Thanks for these thoughts.


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