Stranger Than Fiction

Once again, I just got around to watching a movie others had seen years ago–this time, Stranger Than Fiction with Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. (For the two of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t include spoilers). I’ve gotta admit, while the film has its flaws, it’s stuck with me for over a week.

The story is an unusual one. An author who’s suffering from writer’s block attempts to create a character who will live an ordinary life and then die at the end of the novel. A problem arises when the character becomes a real person who can hear the author narrating his life in third person. When he discovers he’s in a story he isn’t creating–and that he’ll most likely meet a heartbreaking, artistic demise–he must learn to advocate for his own life. He must confront his author.

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The movie delves into questions about the nature of human existence and the artist’s imperative. For instance, do we own our stories, or do they live outside us? As writers, how often do we indulge ourselves by crafting stories that feel like an approximation of truth–but, in the end, rely on cynicism or well-worn tropes? Also, who’s writing the writers’ lives?

Your life?

The movie’s also about depression, about what can happen to art when an artist has lost hope. It made me think about the characters I’ve created. What would I say to them if they stood before me? Would they appreciate the endings I’ve given their stories? Would they agree that I’ve said true things? That I’ve been fair?

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I don’t know. I think so.

Stranger Than Fiction caused me to re-examine my commitment to creating worlds where both good and bad things happen, worlds where there’s danger and sorrow, sure, but also hope. It made me want to keep on saying the truest things I know how to say.

I owe that to my myself, my readers, and to those people whose stories I write down.

 

Choosing Which Stories to Tell (And Which Ones to Leave)

As a writer, I can tell my own story, but what if I want to write about someone else’s life, and they don’t want me to? Is that okay?

Recently, I attended a talk by author Ann Patchett where she discussed both her fiction and non-fiction works. She said her friends and family never really “discovered” themselves in her novels, though their shadows haunted her literary landscape. But in her non-fiction? Hoo, boy. People saw themselves, alright. And some of them got mad.

Patchett had to decide how much to tell when she wrote about real people, had to weigh the cost of telling the truth as she saw it. In the end, she’d decided to write no holds barred, and it cost her some relationships.

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Me? I’m not sure it’s okay to write about someone who’s still living without asking permission first. Even if their life affected mine. Even if I I know big things. (There are exceptions. Another topic for another day).

We need more truth in this world, not less. But truth seasoned with love and, often, restraint.

Stories are powerful, and they can be true even when they aren’t. In my novels, I can call things like I see them. I can tell a true story in a way that keeps hurt feelings out of the mix. I can be honest without burning the town down.

This is important because, in the end, writing isn’t ultimate for me. It can’t take the place of flesh and blood people, and it’s often not worth hurting others for. So I’ve decided if I really need to say something sensitive, I’ll put it in the mouth of someone I (kind-of, maybe) made up.