Readers often ask fiction writers the tiresome question: “Which part of your story is true?”
The correct answer is: “The whole thing.” After all, if a story doesn’t express a Greater Truth, why bother telling it?
That said, I understand the urge to parse a story for “facts.” Coming from a journalism background, I’m sensitive to the reader’s desire for sourcing and verification (to the extent that anything can ever be sourced or verified, given the frailty of human memory and the chasms of misinterpretation into which even the most well-meaning of reporters can fall).
I decided to pull back the curtain just a bit on my forthcoming novel (still untitled), which has, at its center, the lifelong friendship of two women. Their friendship was enabled by their mothers’ friendship, which was based, at least in part, on gardening.
I can share these facts from my life:
- I have a lifelong friend.
- Her mother likes to garden.
- My mother liked to garden.
The facts take us no further
That’s about as far as the facts can take us. I won’t say which of the women in the book is me and which is my friend because I can’t. They are neither of us; they are all of us. My characters embody the traits and habits of scores of people I have encountered over the years.
Nonetheless, to scratch the readerly itch to know what’s “true,” I offer the following annotated passage from my novel, with facts called out.
I learned the habit of martinis [true] from Jon’s grandma [actually from Carol Winfield] and I learned the habit of gardening from my mother [true], who refused to remain contained in our small house [not true; our house was big]. She started with vegetables: tomatoes, beans, peppers, squashes, cauliflower [not true; she never grew cauliflower]. My father dug a narrow strip out of the back lawn [not true; it was more like an enormous rectangle] and erected a chicken-wire fence to keep the deer, raccoons, and chipmunks from decimating her plantings [true; the critters devoured everything that wasn’t fenced]. After a few years she had mastered vegetables and moved on to flowers. My father stood by as she further excavated the lawn to make flower beds, shaking his head and grumbling about how annoying it would be to mow around the patches [true; the lawn was his domain and he defended it fiercely].
I have been thinking of my mother and her gardens recently as another growing season gets underway, although, here in California, the growing season is admittedly less seasonal than the east coast climate where I grew up.
A vision came to me as I consolidated my few tomato plants in their containers around a portion of my drip irrigation system so I can follow the water district’s strict new outdoor irrigation schedule (even-numbered street addresses may water on Tuesdays and Fridays between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.).
I saw myself pushing piles of dirt around, shoveling the seemingly endlessly shit of life in a not-at-all-endless cycle of drudgery doomed to end in my own death and, eventually the death of the planet.
What can I say? You already knew about my tendency to fatalism.
The Greater Truth
But in attempting to make a steaming cup of something palatable out of a cup of crap, I come back to the philosophy that has long sustained me in the face of these dire thoughts.
We are here to do the little things we love.
Tending a pea plant, helping a baby into the world, composting food scraps, mixing a perfect martini, teaching physics to a college student, mowing the lawn, writing a novel—these are precisely the acts that contain within themselves no meaning whatsoever and yet may add up to our only reasonable defense against the apocalypse.
Happier (but perhaps just as meaningless) news
I’m excited to say that a chapter from my novel in progress (not the one accepted for publication) won Honorable Mention in the “Publisher’s Choice Novel Chapter” Division in the San Mateo County Fair’s Literary Arts Competition. It’s a little thing, but done with love. For anyone near San Mateo, stop by. I’ll be at various events at the Fair this week, celebrating literary achievements of all kinds. See where I’ll be and when on my author page.
What psychological tricks do you use to defend against impending doom?
Congratulaions on the honourable mention!
I like the quote “We are here to do the things we love”, although I think something should be added to that, saying that if we do dedicate our lives to doing the things we love, we will leave a trace of ourselves behind, a mark, however small, on the world.
That is true. I am fascinated by that impulse to leave a mark; it seems like the central impulse of being human.
Congratulations, Audrey! I wish I was nearby, I’d definitely stop over and visit!
Gardening gives such pleasure. I like to think we are just caretakers of whatever little plot of earth we inhabit, and that we pass it on to whomever comes next, hopefully in good (or better) shape. The life in everything in nature all comes from the same force, which I imagine creates itself, over and over, in as many designs as possible and with great and varied imagination. Feeling this gives me peace, since I am a piece of that right now, right here, in this very moment – and really forever, if one considers the oneness of everything – now a bird, now a tree, now a little human being. 🙂
Thanks! I wish I could feel in my bones the oneness of everything, which I believe in my brain to be true. It’s my continuing quest…
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First of all, congratulations on your Honorable Mention; this is wonderful news indeed. Secondly, I love the idea that it’s the little acts that give meaning to our lives. I fully agree with this.
I spent much of the weekend gardening with my loved ones and, with hands in the dirt and smiles on our faces, we felt truly content.
“…hands in the dirt and smiles on our faces…” That image perfectly captures what it’s all about. It sounds like you had a great weekend!
Sounds like a very intriguing novel! So glad to hear you are writing about these truths…albeit through the filter of fiction. After a long time of writing memoir, I am finding myself writing fiction now too. Sometimes the truth is better told through fiction.
We are trending in opposite directions, I think. After years of thinking I could never write memoir, I find myself more intrigued and tending that way (encouraged by blogging). We’ll see where it takes me!
Wonderful news! Congratulations. Sorry I won’t be in San Mateo.
I was toying with posting a photo of my compost worms, too!
I have been contemplating whatever is coming, which probably isn’t good for us humans. My tricks? At the moment:
— reminding myself that my brain likes to solve problems, and if things are going smoothly, it can create problems just to feel useful;
–reminding myself that death and change are as natural as everything else;
— that normal is actually everything beyond us and we humans the anomaly. When we go, things will go back to the usual;
–that my brain likes to believe we are here for a purpose, beyond our contributions to the gene pool, but nope, we’re pretty much here to contribute to the gene pool. And yet! There is joy. You do a wonderful job of describing where to find it. When we go, may we do it joyfully, happily giving back what we’ve been loaned.
So what is it with men and lawns?
I’m so glad I asked people for their tips in this department (well, maybe “tips” is the wrong word). I love the idea of reminding myself that my brain may simply be trying to make itself useful by inventing things for itself to do.
Oh, yeah, men and lawns. When my kids were little, my husband decided that rather than a garden box in the back, he wanted a patch of grass for the kids to play on. So I moved my garden boxes OUTSIDE the fence, to make way for his grass patch. Big mistake. The deer were so happy! I was not. To make it worse, my husband never actually got around to planting grass. Needless to say, I moved the garden boxes back inside the fence.
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I look around for the well-meaning people who are trying to make the world better through their efforts, even if it is only a small corner of it. I remember that people tend to believe things they hear said often enough, and I try to say things that increase love and peace and understanding, rather than the opposite.
“…I try to say things that increase love and peace and understanding, rather than the opposite.” Words to live by, without a doubt.
“What psychological tricks do you use to defend against impending doom?”—That’s a heavy question to ponder. I guess for me, it’s keeping myself busy with the things that make me happy–just as you alluded to. Reading, writing, going to a movie with my family or a walk with my husband. Just knowing I have the freedom to do these things helps me realize that the only doom I’m creating is in my own head.
Oh, and I don’t listen to the news on the weekend. My spirits need a break from the endless tragedies.
Congrats on the Honorable Mention! I’m not at all surprised to hear it. 🙂
I do keep coming back to the little things. And it is quite amazing to realize just how much of what we take as immutable truth exists only between our ears. That thought in itself is comforting!
I like the idea of a weekend news moratorium.
Taking a break from global heartbreak helps keep me positive. And I never forget for a moment how fortunate I am to be able to do that. Some people live in it daily.
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Congratulations. Fantastic news!
Thanks! (I assume you meant the prize, not impending doom :-))
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