Thursday, September 8, 2016

Stranger Than Fiction: Using Personal Experience

Have you ever played the game, Three Truths and a Lie? It's one of my favorite getting-to-know-you games because it requires people to think of three true things about them that are so unique they seem unlikely, and it teaches you something about how they lie. Will the lie be obvious or so detailed, it blends right into the truths? But what's really remarkable about playing this game is the discovery that TRUTH really is STRANGER THAN FICTION.

For instance, my three truths always include these: 

I survived a plane crash when I was two years old.
I went skydiving in Canada, and I jumped twice.
I never saw snow in real life until I was eighteen and went away to college.

My lie would always be somewhat lame. I'd exaggerate the number of kids I have (say 8 instead of 5) or say I've been to Hawaii (sadly, still a lie). It turns out I'm terrible at lying. I guess there are worse things! But each person's lie is true for someone else. One of my favorite friends in my neighborhood does, in fact, have 8 kids. And two of my siblings have lived in Hawaii. Did they fly me out to see them? Of course not. Everyone who lives in Hawaii is broke. But am I bitter?

So when we are writing fiction, basically telling lies we hope are convincing enough to convey ideas and themes, we actually rely on an ample portion of the truth, whether that truth belongs to us personally or not. If I were to write about Hawaii, my family's experiences there would factor into my narrative. If I were to write about a 19-year-old girl about to jump out of a small airplane that resembled the small airplane she crashed in with her family when she was 2 years old, I would draw on my own anxieties from that experience.

For this reason, I find that the best UNIVERSAL advice for good writing is this: live.

Living gives us scope and empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes that's essential to good fiction. In the absence of time traveling to China in the 1960s, however, you may find it preferable to read someone else's truth. Memoir should have a respected place on every fiction writer's bookshelves. Memoir is great writing because it's true and that truth is stranger than fiction.

The last memoir I read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang. If I hadn't been told it is a true story, I would not believe it. The happenings are so alien to my ideas of proper government and community action that it strains credibility. Why would people act that way?

Memoir brings us to the heart of all good fiction: the WHY, the motive of our heroes and supporting characters. Why would his sister betray him after spending all their childhood mothering him? Why would her lover kill himself on the eve of their anniversary? Why would the pull of glory be so strong it could make a young child change her name and give up a rich cultural heritage to act on a foreign stage?

And in every answer there is room for still more questions.

That's what makes the truth so much stranger than fiction. How do you infuse your stories with the clarion ring of strange truth?

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you about memoirs. I read memoirs a lot for research, and it really helps to get into the head of your characters and how a particular experience or situation would seem like to them.
    Great post--The Red Scarf Girl looks like an interesting read.


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