Friday, November 06, 2009

On Writing

I've been accused, often--maybe not so much "accused" as I have been "laughably charged", as no one's really mad--that I distort the truth in these blog posts of mine. Friends who are present for an episode and then read about the episode later are always bemused. "That's not exactly what happened," they sometimes say, or else they say, "That's not ONLY what happened."

Hey: I haven't taken any oaths to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing BUT the truth (although I swear I don't make things up) and if I did, I wouldn't be writing.

Because writing by its very nature is a lie.

Or at least, it has only a passing resemblance to the truth. To what actually happened.

It's impossible, at least by amateurs like me, to really capture the wholeness of any scene taking place in Real Life. For one thing, Real Life doesn't stop or start--it's always going, always, and hundreds of back stories, side stories, and hell, cover stories are bubbling away at all times, informing every participant in the scene but totally impossible to capture in the written word. Blog posts, or novels, or newspaper columns, or whatever, have to start somewhere and end somewhere, and they have to make some kind of point. They have to illuminate a lesson or sharpen a moral truth, take 1000 words and create an etching in your mind of Real Life. A good column or blog post is 3-D; if you turn the page sideways you can almost see the image that the writer is trying to convey crystallizing over the page. A good writer sees a scene and cuts away everything that is not, in fact, the point, allowing the dimly lit kernel, the basis of human interaction, glimmer darkly from the page of newsprint.

And that is impossible to do while trying to capture every angle of every conversation said during the half an hour conversation that the writer caught and wrote down.

The best way to capture Real Life is not, in fact, to record every second of it, but instead to pull at a glowing thread, tracing it backwards, following its twists and turns and recording every second of that journey. If Life is a tapestry, good writing is about three inches of embroidery thread. Trying to describe the whole tapestry in words does not invoke images of Real Life in your audience; instead, it makes them think you can't write. Character development in novels is the same: a real 3-D character is almost too much, seems too unrealistic. It's better instead to shine a spotlight on certain characteristics at certain times and leave out most characteristics altogether.

And keeping this in mind is helpful as I try to paint a picture of Capitol Hill on this very stormy night.

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