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.