Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Truth is Harder Than Fiction

by Holly West

A few months back, Joe Clifford asked me to participate in Lip Service West, a literary event he co-produces with his wife, Justine. Located in the San Francisco area, it features artists reading their gritty, true-life stories aloud.

Though flattered by the invitation, my first impulse was to decline. You see, I write fiction for a reason: on the surface, it seems a whole lot easier than delving into one’s personal story, digging for nuggets of truth that may be painful to examine in the harsh light of day. Lip Service West’s tagline is “Everyone Has a Story.” Well, I’ve read Joe’s memoir, Junkie Love. I’ve also read Josh Stalling’s memoir, All the Wild Children. I’d heard TomPitts read and knew something about his struggles with drug addiction. These were some of the artists I’d be reading with, and my story has more in common with Snow White’s than it does with theirs. I couldn't imagine what I had to offer such an event.

Except that even Snow White had a wicked stepmother who tried to poison her. It doesn’t get much grittier than that, does it? I knew I had a story or two to tell; the only question was whether I was brave enough to put one of them on paper and read it aloud. I didn’t give myself too much time to ponder it before I typed a hasty acceptance to Joe’s invitation.

As expected, it turned out to be one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. Once I’d settled on a topic—a difficult task in itself—I struggled with just how much to reveal, how vulnerable to make myself. The first draft was charming and funny, full of witty observations about the event I was describing. Then I read it to my husband and he told me that all of my "clever" commentary was getting in the way of the interesting bits of the story.

<Ba dump dump>

In my attempt to protect myself, I realized I'd tried to cover up the truth by injecting too much of myself into the story. I've always said that I admire Josh Stallings greatly for the authenticity he brings to his writing--I now understand what a difficult thing it is to do. Because my impulse, whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction, is always to protect myself. To never make myself truly vulnerable.

To be certain, I'm in no hurry to write another true-life essay. However, I learned something from this exercise that applies to my fiction: those uncomfortable passages that make me squirm in my chair? The ones that make my cheeks burn red or tears fill my eyes? The ones that I'm afraid my parents will read? Those are the keepers: they're the ones that make me a better writer.


David Cranmer said...

Though I have scores of topics, a true-life essay would be difficult.

Dana King said...

I never write true-life stories, unless they're humorous; autobiographical elements do crop up in my fiction fairly often. I need that little bit of distance to be effective.

Joe Clifford said...

You were great, Holly! (And, Dana and David, you ever find yourself in San Francisco, you both have standing invites to read for LSW. It's not all that difficult, and some find it liberating. Plus, y'know, free wine.)

Holly West said...

Any time you come out of your comfort zone it can be difficult. But this ended up being a great experience for me.

Scott D. Parker said...

Good to read how you overcame your reluctance, Holly. The only issue I'd have is the non-gritty nature of my life so I'd only have to watch.