February 19, 2021

Write It! How to get started Chapter 4 Point of view or why we watched the flick Hitch



The Writer as Director—or Why we watched the rom-com Hitch

As we go along here and if you stick with me, you’ll discover that I take a different approach on the “Getting Started” topics you read about in “how to” books. 

One example: I think outlines are a deadly way to start inventive work. Not that they aren’t useful down the road as part of the editing process—They are, of course. But I think an outline gets in the way of initial and formative and changing invention.

In this chapter, let’s talk about point of view.



Writers connect with their readers in the first sentence they write. We’re like directors with a camera. The writer-director tells the cameraman where to look: close-in or far out, where to move.


So for the term of art point of view in craft books, you’ll hear first person, third-limited or third person, second person (usually you’ll be told never to use this one—but remember all rules are made to be broken!). 

I like "camera" as a term of art better than "point of view" because the camera takes me to the way I see, right to my father’s home movies and right smack into that dark theater or favorite book where I can disappear and come out transformed.

In the movie Hitch, the camera, moves right to Will Smith. We’re in his head. 

So let’s consider what point of view we’re in when we see his first client, Kevin Sussman as Neil, on screen and not with Hitch. The camera shows us Neil, longing for the lovely actress he ends up with. 

Are we in omniscient or all-knowing point of view? Is the camera-man and director like a god who sees all? 

Well, sure and in many ways in this flick.

What I’m doing here, through the use of a fun film, is help you understand how the camera works—and how the camera is a good metaphor for the term-of-art point of view in “how to” books. 

I’m also saying that in this flick, one point of view dominates—and for good reason.

Let’s talk about Albert, the terrific overweight lovable man, played by Kevin James. Albert’s story is one central narrative strand of the movie. 

That means his story is inside Hitch’s story. When Albert is in the board room with Allegra, Hitch is not there. He doesn’t see or know what happened until Albert returns.

So the camera went where Hitch could not, right? 

And that means it knew more than Hitch could know.

Defining POINT of VIEW: Point of view is best seen as a continuum from knowing everything like a god, to knowing only what one character could know, or could be told or what the narrator could know about his character all the way to the other end of the continuum where the camera knows only what the main character knows or is thinking.

Rule #5: Writers need to know where the camera is and how to use that camera.


Here's a quick way to understand what I mean:

1. Write the first sentence of your story.

2. Does that sentence begin with “I”, with “you”, with “he” or she”, with “they” 

—or something like this? 

“The Joneses always had Sunday dinner together except this Sunday, Ruthie said she wouldn’t be coming.” 

That last sentence immediately gives the narrator privilege to all the Joneses—not only Ruthie—even when Ruthie is not around to see or hear.

The first sentence you write, almost always (Remember that rule about breaking the rules!), decides for the reader whose story this is. 

That first sentence sets expectations and your reader expects you not to jar him, not to make him stop and read back to figure out too much. 

Though do remember that good, challenging books often require reading back or even re-reading—easy reads don’t. 

As a writer, you’ve got to remember that, like the director of Hitch, in your first sentence you’ve made a decision about point of view. That decision has something to do with your choice of “I”—the narrator as central character—or, on that continuum, to “knowing all the characters like a god”. 

Here’s a famous first line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

 Tolstoy’s first sentence is not the voice of a character in the story. This is the narrator’s voice, established in the opening of the book and letting us know that he is there and he will tell the story.

So let’s go back to the first sentence I made up: 

“The Joneses always had Sunday dinner together except this Sunday, Ruthie said she wouldn’t be coming,” giving the writer/director more privilege. 

I made a decision to let my camera move around, know more than just what Ruthie knows. 

Suppose this is my first sentence: 

“Ruthie wasn’t stuck in traffic. She was stuck in love and couldn’t tell anyone. So no way she was coming to her parents’ Sunday dinner.”

I can’t now willy-nilly switch to Ruthie’s mother or any other of the Joneses, unless I started off with that other first sentence, giving my camera the privilege to move around.

The problem with shifts in points of view that don’t involve some sort of hint to the reader as to what is going on is that the reader senses a gap—as if something’s been left out. 

The reader kinda feels as if a new story has started. What just happened? he asks—unless the reader senses that this was a good place to stop and wants to hear about this other character.

Our stories need to be able to bear the weight of shifts in point of view as if—yeah, yeah, that’s where the camera needed to go! 

The reader needs to see some purpose to the shifts. 

Usually, one of the points of view in the shifts will be the dominant point of view.

In the flick Hitch, I’m arguing that his role, played so charmingly by Will Smith, is in fact the dominant story.

Rule #6: All good stories tell more than one story.

In Hitch, we get Hitch’s story. We get Albert and Allegra’s (played by Amber Valleta) story and we care about them. We get Sara Melas’ story (played by the gorgeous Eva Mendes) and we care about her. We get Hitch and Sara’s story and we even get Casey’s (played by Julie Ann Emery) story. 

That’s a lot of levels of storytelling. And levels—meaning more than one story inside a story—make for great stories that we want to watch and read.

Rule # 7: The writer and the reader need to know whose story the narrator, aka director-writer, is telling.

One thing’s for sure in Hitch: This is Hitch’s story.

One thing’s for sure in Anna Karenina—and it took four years for Tolstoy to write this great love story: This is Anna’s story.

Here’s a tip if you’re just starting or even if you’re a pretty seasoned writer: 

Learn first how to write in third person and use a narrator. This means your narrator’s first sentence is something like my second sentence about Ruthie. 

I argue that if you learn how to write a story inside a single character’s point of view and you use a narrator, you will learn everything you need to write in any point of view. 

Bottom line: Point of view means not only the choice of “I” or “he or she” or “they”. 

It’s, more importantly, the writer-director’s choice about his camera. 

After all, if the written story is good, it comes off the page for us like a good flick and that means the reader comes along for the ride and never falls out of his seat in the theater or drops the book from his hands.

A good writer-director knows how to use his camera.

Eudora Welty put the craft problem this way so that we would understand that figuring out how and where our camera will go and how it moves around is part of the invention, part of the art, part of the magic:

“One of the most important things the … writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face. Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through—it may sometimes divine and prophesy.” ** 

We’ll talk about other points of view soon.

And remember this: Good writers are like the hedgehog. They know one big thing: You gotta learn the rules to break them, and all the rules are made to be broken.

Go invent and come back to see me for chapter 5. And remember this too: The so-called “rules,” mine included, can get in the way of invention. 

I like to say, Forget what you just learned while you’re in the inventive stage of the writing—as I hope you found in the “On Going Home” writing experiment in: click this link πŸ‘‰ Chapter 2.

I will be talking soon more about writing in third-person limited to learn craft or through the my private Zoom classes, discounted for each additional student who joins. Write me at mltabor@me.com for more info.

For now, here is an example from the opening of my short story “Guarding the Pie” in: click this link πŸ‘‰ The Woman Who Never Cooked (discounted by publisher)


Martin had kissed her during the week of shiva, barely five days after they’d stood beside his father’s grave. Now with her own father close to death, Olivia wondered how he could have done it. Not that she excused herself, either—Martin’s father was her uncle; Martin, her first cousin.

When Martin called, it had been thirty years since they’d been alone together, when they’d been briefly—over almost before it began—engaged. They’d seen each other, of course, occasionally at family parties, bar and bat mitzvahs.

He said, “I want to bring you the letters.” The love letters, she understood without his telling her, the ones she had written him.

He was calling from Boston, where he lived. He told her he was coming to Baltimore to see his eighty-four-year-old mother—the same age as Olivia’s father. “She’s still on her own, thank goodness,” said Martin, “but I know I need to see her more often now.” Olivia didn’t mention that her father wasn’t faring as well. “I’ll be coming in about three weeks,” he said. “I could drop by one afternoon.” So there’d be time to cancel, for her to change her mind, for him to change his.

“Why now?” she asked. “What do I want with the letters?” When he didn’t answer, while his silence gave her time to think, she decided this must be his way of telling her he’d kept them all this time. Well, he had, hadn’t he? She felt flattered, though ashamed to admit it. She agreed to the visit because he’d saved the letters.

She hung up and sat at the kitchen table with her husband, who’d been reading the Sunday Sun, eating his second, late morning bagel, drinking coffee. “I think I should see him alone, don’t you?”

“Not really.” Al rubbed the balding spot on the crown of his head, the way he did when he was feeling uncomfortable, when he didn’t want to explain how he was feeling.


Note: A PayPal button (top right), if you like what you've read, any donation would help. 


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Or, use Chrome to comment or ask me a question. Helps to sign into Google or Chrome first so that I know who you are! 


If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a fee, via Zoom, an Eight-"session"-course (each session includes 11 parts and one-on-one attention) with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 


email me at mltabor@me.com


I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 



Chapter 5 coming soon ...


Questions, comments welcome.

**Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Vintage International Edition: New York, August 1990.




 



January 07, 2021

Write It! How to get started Chapter 3 Inspiration versus Perspiration

 


Writing tips and tricks: Chapter 3 Inspiration vs Perspiration

Let’s answer this question first: 

Q.: Should I wait for lightning to strike? In other words, how do I get started?

A: Don’t wait for inspiration. Writers work all the time and, when they’re lucky, the muse joins them. Part of that work is reading, good stuff and not-so-good stuff, and watching, yes, movies, anything and everything. 

The reason is that to write a good story, non-fiction or fiction, we need to understand the rules of narrative: How narrative that holds the reader or watcher works its magic—with this key caveat:



If there are 12 rules, the 13th rule is “Break all the rules,” but you can’t break a rule until you know the rule. 

Here’s how we’ll work together: We’ll read and we’ll watch (yes, movies and TV). The key is this: You gotta learn to read and watch as a writer—always analyzing and creating. 

But in what order? And what do I mean by analyzing?

First we need to begin to understand how creativity works and how that part of our process differs from analysis.

What I’m not going to do: I'm not going to mess with your process of invention. 

I am not going to tell you: Here’s the toolbox: Use it and you’ll be a great writer. 

Anyone who tells you this is lying. Did you hear me LYING, as Hitch says in the rom-com by the same name. 

See the YouTube trailer accompanying this chapter. 

And watch the movie: The writing is good and I’ll talk about why it’s good in a next chapter or through the Zoom classes I am holding via Meetup.com. Search for me there at the Beverly Hills Creative Writing Group or Write It! How to get started. You don't have to live in California to take these Zoom classes that occur once a month on Wednesdays at 6:30 pm PT.

Those tool-box-how-to books may be able to tell you how to write formula stuff, whether it be the bodice buster or the formula mystery—and they may be able to help you with some basic craft issues. 

Let me assure you that great romance novels and great mysteries or memoirs, as examples, do NOT work with pre-determined formulas. We’ll be naming the great ones in future chapters or classes. 

If you want to write original, inspiring stuff that sings off the page, read on.

Here’s my hope: Once I help you see the craft in a writer’s or filmmaker’s work, you’ll never be able to read a story or watch a film the same way again. 

What you need to do to understand inspiration: 

One simple exercise, a lesson I learned from the writer David Jauss.* 

Here it is:

1. On a piece of paper in long hand, write your name.

2. Now, write an alias.

Got that done?

Here’s what you just now learned: In that beat, that moment of dropping away into your unconscious mind to write the alias—after all, you know your name—you found the place where the invention happens. 

It’s as simple as that.

Rule # 1: Never mess with that. That place is where your voice, your story, your inspiration come from—and it’s a mysterious world that no workshop, no mentor, no teacher should ever mess with. 

That’s where the muse will find you. That’s where the discovery lies.

But we need to read and watch films and TV shows with a writer’s eye. 

What I’m going to help you to do is show you how to see how great stuff becomes GREAT stuff.

I'll show you how to read a story like a writer, watch a great movie like a writer, enjoy a terrific episode of a TV series like a writer.

But here’s the key: Don’t let analysis of your writing interfere with its invention.

Once you learn what I show you how to do by analyzing something great—coming in the following chapters (In Chapter 4 we’ll re-watch the flick Hitch; see the assignment at the end of this chapter.) like a writer—you’ll learn how to teach yourself through the analysis. 

That brings me to rule #2.

Rule # 2: Learn how to forget. 

Here’s what I mean: You should never ever go back to the studying we do (except when you’re editing). 

Why? You won’t need to remember. The reason is that what you learn as we work together is now somewhere in your unconscious mind. You know, already!

When you’re inventing, you need to forget. You need to write without thinking. 

Edit later. Let me say it again: Editing is always a secondary task.

The free write we did in Chapter 2 “On Going Home” was one of our first experiments to help you teach your unconscious mind to invent, to discover and to do this better and more often—without analysis or judgement.

Rule # 3: Never wait for inspiration. 

Write, write, write. The inspiration will find you. 

I promise you it will—as long as you remember to FORGET

Writers who worry about the rules sit in judgment of themselves like the evil stepmother from Cinderella. 

The critic never lets the princess go to the ball. 

Kill all the critics! We hate them.

Here’s a thought: I love the 1977 movie Annie Hall. Marshall Brickman who co-wrote the screenplay with Woody Allen said in an interview, 


“I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’” He added and I commiserate big time: “Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.” 



So show up to that blank page and get some sleep. We’ll talk more about sleeping to invent soon!

Here’s an example from my novel Who by Fire



You can listen to me reading it via audible.com—and, as I said in Chapter One, I learned bunches when I did this in an NPR Studio.

I once went to a barn-burning run by the fire department in rural Iowa and I journaled about it. Remember, I told you to save everything and to start a journal if you haven’t already. 

I don’t mean a diary and we’ll talk more about this, too. 

Here’s is what ended up in Chapter one of my novel Who by Fire—and, yes, I surprised myself. That aspect of “surprise” turns out to be a key part of the process of invention. We'll talk more about this, too, soon!




I would have told Lena about the fire I saw in Iowa, but it is regret that writes this, that longs for said things unsaid.

This fire would have amazed her. The heat was so incredibly hot it reminded me of something I learned in physics: the fact that the air around a lightning bolt is hotter than the surface of the sun. 

It was a barn burning—not with any political or racial overtones, but a necessary burn of an old wooden grain bin in the center of town in Whiting, Iowa, where I grew up. She was a Baltimore-grown city girl who wouldn’t be able to imagine this story of the burning though I suppose it’s a common enough event in rural parts of our country.

That I know something Lena couldn’t imagine amazes me.

I go home to Iowa—rarely—and, as it turns out, after Lena died, fortuitously: the controlled fire.







Assignment, or “Your mission should you choose to accept it” is to watch the rom-com flick Hitch starring the fabulous Will Smith.




Questions? Weigh in now. Answers will appear briefly here in comments—and, more fully, as chapters—or in my Zoom Meetup.com classes.

The floor is always open.

Note: Questions and comments welcome. A PayPal button (top right), if you like what you've read, any donation would help. 

Also: Do note, if you are on Safari, to comment, you must go to 1. Safari preferences: See the drop-down menu in up left corner under "Safari". Then 2. go to Privacy and 3. uncheck "cross-tracking". You can now easily comment and can turn cross-tracking back on after you comment. 

Or, use Chrome to comment or ask me a question. Helps to sign into Google or Chrome first so that I know who you are! 


If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a small  fee, via Zoom, a compressed SEVEN-session course with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 


email me at mltabor@me.com


I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 



Chapter 4 coming soon ...




*Jauss, David. "Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and the Physics of Creativity," The Writer's Chronicle, Vol. 38, #5, p. 4.
Photo: Fire by Daniel Pattullo on Pinterest
Image: Break the rules by taakoses on deviant art.com
Image: Space Shuttle Atlantis, liftoff, no attribution required.


December 10, 2020

Write it! How to get started: Chapter 2 HOME

                   


Writing tips and tricks: Chapter 2 On Going HOME

All of us who care about writing will probably at some point read Ernest Hemingway. So let’s start with some advice from “Papa.”

Ernest Hemingway

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway's book about bullfighting where he describes what he calls "the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick," he says, 


“People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. . . . A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But really he is not … .”

                                  

So what do we make of this when we begin on our own journey of writing? We often hear this advice, “Write what you know.” But we all know that great fantasy has little to do with that advice—or does it?

I argue that the greatest fantasy writes from what a writer does in fact know and has lived. 

Ah, we dream

Here’s what I mean: All great fantasy feels real because the greatest fantasy writers understand the importance of their own lived experience, what they learned while at home, wherever that home might be. The greatest, say Tolkien, make you at home in the worlds they create. 

First, start with your literal home in a guided imagery writing experiment. I'll outline it for you here, but be sure to do it as a free write.


What is a “free write”? 

Get yourself a pad of paper and write for 10 to 15 minutes without letting your pen off the paper and without worrying about grammar, spelling, punctuation. Just write! 

Remember that editing is always a secondary task.

We are looking for invention and invention needs fodder—stuff you’ll type up, put in your journal and use when you need it. You are preparing for the invention.

So here’s our first writing experiment. Let me know how yours comes out. 

Below, I tell you how, when I did this experiment, it ended up in one of my short stories that you may read in The Woman Who Never Cooked and that was first published in a well-known literary magazine: 


Chapter coming soon on why literary mags matter!



So get your pad and pen ready—and go home. If you are able, have someone quietly and slowly read this experiment to you while you do the free write. 

I’ve included a YouTube link below: Music that you may listen to while you do the free write, soothing sounds in the background.

If you don't have someone to read the experiment to you, read all the way through it, and then do the free write without taking you pen off the page

Let your unconscious mind take over—that's where the invention begins.

Click on the arrow and music will play:


Home Experiment:

Go in your head to the place where you grew up. What does the street look like? The door of the house, apartment, trailer, tent?

Go in. What do you see first, Go through the first room. What do you see, smell?

The second room if there is one. What do you see on the right, on the left?

Go in the kitchen. Is there a table? What does it look like? What’s on it?

Open the refrigerator and write about everything you see, smell. In the freezer? Or freezer compartment, what’s there? What do you see?

Is there a window in the kitchen? What do you see?

Are there stairs? What are they like, how do they sound when you walk on them?

Go in your parents’ room, your mother, father, stepparents’, guardian’s room. What do you see, want to touch, not want to touch? Open the closet. What do you see, smell?

Go in your bedroom. What is the bed like? Lie down on the bed. What’s on the ceiling? What’s under your bed? 

Write until your hand feels as if it won’t move anymore. Then write a last sentence. Type all this up and save it in your computer journal.

If you don’t have one, start one now.

You will be surprised by how much detail you’ve just created on paper, from your heart and mind and memory. 

The writing has begun.



Now for some inside scoop on my process: I once did a free write and remembered the time my sister and I got hair permanents: What a disaster for me more than for her. 

When we do these free writes we get material for invention. 

My memory ended up in the story "Sine Die" that won two prizes-- and almost got me in a lot of trouble: the Santa Fe Writer's Project Grand Prize and won The Prentice Hall Fiction Award (Ron Carlson, judge) and was published in The Hayden's Ferry Review. 

As to the trouble I got in: Some literary mags don't allow simultaneous submissions—very few still require this, and I will talk about this rule in discussions we have or maybe even in a chapter. 

So what happened is that I had sent the story to Chelsea and the editor then Richard Foerster (I now adore him!) got really angry. I fell on my sword in every way I could think of and he finally said, "Mary, lightening can strike twice. You need to be careful. Send me something else. I sent him "The Burglar"—see chapter one—and he sent me a contract. Wowza--that was a great day.

Here's a little excerpt that I hope will make you want to read the story in the collection The Woman Who Never Cooked



The two women were at the bar, thinking they were in Hong Kong, pretending. (Much of what they do is pretending—it is how they get on with one another.) Today they pretended that they were Asian, that their hair was long and straight, that they could smoke without harm, that they could drink and stay in control but still get high, that their skin was the beautiful mellow beige of Asian women, that they could lie in the sun without burning.


Don't forget to let me know how the free write worked for you.

Questions and comments welcome. A PayPal button (top right), if you like what you've read, any donation would help. Also: Do note that for some reason, if you are on Safari, to comment, you must go to 1. Safari preferences: See the drop-down menu in up left corner under "Safari". Then 2. go to Privacy and 3. uncheck "cross-tracking". You can now easily comment and can turn cross-tracking back on after you comment. Or, use Chrome to comment or ask me a question. Helps to sign into Google or Chrome first so that I know who you are! 


If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a small  fee, via Zoom, a compressed SEVEN-session course with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 


email me at mltabor@me.com


I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 



Chapter 3 coming soon ...


Credits: 

Photo of Ernest Hemingway in the common domain
Quote from Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner: New York 1932, 1960, p. 191
Photo of fantasy ship by zano on deviantart.com
Photo of pad, cup and pen, "office" from Pixabay 
YouTube video: Going Home - song



November 21, 2020

WRITE IT! HOW TO GET STARTED

 Writing tips and tricks: Learn to write in a series of fun chapters. 


Chapter One: Autobiography and Fiction






Subtitle: Why I could label my collection of short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked non-fiction--even though it is indeed FICTION! and a probing answer to the difficult question, Where is the TRUTH? (*asterisks refer to footnotes at the end of this essay).


I will be using this book and others I've written to explain: buy it at a discount πŸ‘‰πŸ»here or on Amazon


You know the line: Truth is stranger than fiction? I have a twist on that. I've learned through the writing of three books and a fourth in process* as I write this essay that the fictional account of my stories have as much emotional truth and intellectual significance as the factual ones.


As memoir has increased in popularity** both in books and movies—"A True Story" being the familiar movie tag—I've continued to argue that fiction, written close to the bone, will likely provide the reader with a deeper look into the life and soul of the writer, but more important, the reader if the story is worth his time.


Think first of this question, one that I pose to myself for purposes of this essay: Do you think self-revelation is part of the process of writing?


My answer: Any serious writer who denies it, lies.



I agree with David Shields who argues in favor of self-revelation and to a large extent against the novel that is not self-revelatory. He does so in Reality Hunger through a series of quotes, occasionally his own—unabashedly without full attribution (but that's another story) using only the name of the writer. 

Here's John Berger, "Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience." 

And later, the late David Foster Wallace, "I don't know what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone." **


A serious writer can't help but reveal even as the lie of fiction operates.


Lee K. Abbott, a writer and teacher I knew and admired (A memorial to him will appear in Chapter 7 of this course), has put the issue succinctly this way: "All stories are true stories, especially the artful lies we invent to satisfy the wishful thinker in us, for they present to us, in disguise often and at great distance, the way we are or would want to be." ****


My collection of short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked includes three memoir pieces I don't identify and I will use them here to explain why I argue that the fiction is more powerful, more truthful, if you will, than the so-called true story.


First, I give as example a comparison of what is essentially the same story told in fiction and also in memoir.


I put aside my novel Who by Fire that was close to finished when my husband said after 22 years of marriage, oh-so-Greta-Garbo, "I need to live alone."

This event stopped me in my tracks—and eventually I blogged my life while I was living it. That blog turned into the memoir (Re)Making Love and it won a 2014 Watty Award. 

 

That book like Who by Fire is a love story but oddly one that fiction would probably not find credible. 


I learned through these two books that the fictional account of my story has greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual one. 


So I had to write what really happened as memoir, as non-fiction. The memoir tells the truth as I knew it while I lived through the wreckage of my marriage—and, for those who may have read it, its ending defies credibility and is totally true-blue. 


What happened even appears in the 2011 Valentine’s Day issue of Real Simple Magazine where my husband and I tell our story.


What I'm saying is that the hold to the facts that memoir must adhere to kept me from going after the emotional truth as forcefully as the novel Who by Fire


I learned through these two books that the fictional account of my story has greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual one and that book has loads of fun trailers from rom-coms and photos I took. I do hope you'll read it even as I argue that it can't go where Who by Fire, a fictional account with a quite different ending could. 


After all, in the novel, arguably if you believe the Lena character is me, I kill her off on page one—actually I think all the characters are parts of me.


Here's how I learned what the so-called true story didn't reveal. I am the reader for the audible.com version of Who by Fire (audible.com version here). While reading it aloud in an NPR recording studio, I discovered my own book as if for the first time. I realized I'd written this novel to find the man I must have known on the unconscious level I was losing. 


Good fiction, meaning you know while you're reading that the writer is risking her life, can go to this place of hard truth in a way that memoir because of its hold on the so-called facts can't do if the writer is honest—and honesty is the key word here to understand my meaning. 

 


In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland explain our resistance to fiction—or to any art—this way: "[T]he prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of the genius (or, on occasion, madness). ... [A]rt itself becomes a strange object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.


"Clearly, something's getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. ... [W]hat we really gain from the art-making of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb." *****

 

I decided to further prove the force of fiction by revising the title character's name to Olivia in each of The Woman Who Never Cooked's stories for the second edition. The allusion (Olivia) is to that character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the comedy that takes center stage in the story "Madness and Folly" about my father after he broke his hip—in real life and in fiction. *****


I could say that I am hidden inside the fiction—but in fact I am not. 


In the fiction, I used food and adultery as metaphor for the grief I bore through my mother's, my father's and my sister's illnesses and deaths. I wasn't sure who I was. As a prime example, I didn't know when I wrote "The Woman Who Never Cooked," the title story, that I would become that woman.


When I first wrote each of the stories the central character had the same name in every story because I knew that what I was doing was direct, tough and purposefully artful exaggeration of autobiography. My agent at the time suggested that I change the main character's name to hide that fact—as I say above, I later decided that he was wrong. And, perhaps surprisingly, the book only achieved publication—and won a couple of prizes— after I added two of the three memoir pieces that had been published in literary magazines. 


All the stories have been published first that way:  I will discuss the importance of the small literary magazine in another chapter coming later.


The stories in the collection The Woman Who Never Cooked that are memoir are: "Rugalach," a tribute to my mother; "Losing," a tribute to my father; and the eponymous closing story "The Woman Who Never Cooked." 


Let's talk about the fiction and why I am now convinced that each of the other eight stories is more powerful, more truthful than the memoir—with the exception of "The Woman Who Never Cooked." 


I say this about the last because it is written in third person like a fairy tale. The opening line is, "There once was a woman with 327 cookbooks who never cooked." Through food, this true-to-its-core memoir tells the story of my mother's, my father's and my sister's illnesses and the effect on living that their trials had on me. 


You may read for free "The Burglar" here where the story, along with others in the collection won the Santa Fe Writers Grand Prize and was published by the literary magazine Chelsea before appearing in the book of short stories. I'll use this story to explain.

 

What would the burglar advise?


The image above that I use on my website was designed by Zaara.com and uses the line  in red "What would the burglar advise?", a line inside the story—not exactly a line you'd expect.

You would think me mad if I'd written this as memoir because the actual burglar is alive and well in this story—something only fiction can achieve without madness. Even Robin Hood and maid Marian appear in the story in an Internet game. 


Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian and Sean Connery in the 1976 flick.


But the burglar himself is essential to express the love letter to my husband that I wrote here in the aftermath of my mother's death and a burglary that actually did occur in our home while we were away visiting both our children at college. These facts I compress into the story's essence.


So where is the truth? Does Ruth/Olivia actually desire the burglar? Does a burglar come to her home from his on Virgilia, a street near mine where the burglary actually occurred? 


Does it matter that I still own the locket that is in the burglar's pocket and that the actual burglar chose all my other jewelry to steal and left behind the locket with its crude seal?


With that fact, the story wrote itself. Locket in hand that my mother had saved with a lock of her mother's hair sealed inside, I went on the journey of discovery and the result is heartfelt non-fiction that cannot accurately be called that.


Joyce Carol Oates has put the conundrum of literary fiction so often spurned for the "true" story because, What can one learn from a "fiction"? this way:


"So much of literature springs from a wish to assuage homesickness, a desire to commemorate places, people, childhoods, family and tribal rituals, ways of life—surely the primary inspiration of all: the wish, in some artists clearly the necessity, to capture in the quasi permanence of art that which is perishable in life. Though the great modernists—Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Lawrence, Woolf, Faulkner—were revolutionaries in technique, their subjects were intimately bound up with their own lives and their own regions; the modernist is one who is likely to use his intimate life as material for his art, shaping the ordinary into the extraordinary." *******


What I hope to have done here and for all the stories I've written that are (quote) fiction is to lift the curtain on that much misunderstood word. I argue that to dismiss out of hand the truth that close-to-the-bone, self revelatory fiction reveals is to miss a connection that may reveal to you what writers say in print (out loud, so to speak) and that would otherwise remain unspoken. The reason? Fiction, like all the arts that reveal through artifice, frees the unsayable. Why oh why would any of us who read or go to movies or art museums or photographic exhibits wish to miss that unsayable truth because we want the so-called true story?


Cover image by Shannon Kellie, one of my students, who took the full course: see bolded note at end of this chapter; flower image by Zaara.com

Image of "To Tell the Truth" from Wikipedia

Image of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn from YouTube

Covers for Reality Hunger by David Shields and Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland are images from the web or the author's websites.


Footnotes follow:

*Dangerous Love my novel that is offline but first two chapters may appear here as a taste. It is almost finished and will be out to agents. 

  ** As an example, Leigh Gilmore, author of The Limits of Autobiography, notes that "...[T]he number of new English language volumes categorized as 'autobiography or memoir' roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s. (Analysis based on data from the Worldcat database). See p. 1, footnote 1 of her book, Cornell University Press, 2001.

· *** David Shields, Reality Hunger, "412' John Berger, p. 139; '421,' David Foster Wallace, p. 141, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

· **** Lee K. Abbott, "Fifty Years of Puerto Del Sol," Puerto Del Sol, Vol, 50, 2015, p. 194.

· ***** David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear, Capra Press 1997 p. 89.

· ****** Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, Mid-list Press, 2006. Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, 2nd edition, Outer Banks Publishing Group, 2013.

· ******* "Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature," Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015.


Questions and comments welcome. A PayPal button (top right), if you like what you've read, any donation would help. Also: Do note that for some reason, if you are on Safari, to comment, you must go to 1. Safari preferences: See the drop-down menu in up left corner under "Safari". Then 2. go to Privacy and 3. uncheck "cross-tracking". You can now easily comment and can turn cross-tracking back on after you comment. Or, use Chrome to comment or ask me a question. Helps to sign into Google or Chrome first so that I know who you are! 


If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a small  fee, via Zoom, a compressed SEVEN-session course with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 


email me at mltabor@me.com


I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 



Chapter TWO coming soon ....