Sunday, August 10, 2008

Stories Behind the Books -1- fact in fiction



"The first problem of the media is posed by what does not get translated, or even published in the dominant political languages."
Jacques Derrida


One of the themes in Rehearsal: The Highest Aim is how facts behind stories we hear are often untrue, especially in public roles such as politicians and entertainers. The series and sequel expand on this point because it is something I believe strongly that we should consider.

At my book signing on Friday night, I met another writer who mentioned a deconstructionist theory relating how fiction is never fiction. He couldn't remember the theorist's name and my only thought is Jacques Derrida, possibly, but anyway ... I had to agree. There is generally more truth in fiction than there is in non-fiction. Do any of us still trust what we read from "true stories" in the media? I take all of it with a huge grain of salt.

On the other hand, there are myriads of truth behind any mainstream fiction novel. I think he was wondering how much of my work was truth disguised as fiction. Honestly, all of it comes from reality. That's what mainstream/literary fiction is -- the realities of life gathered into story format. Are any of the characters people I know? Nope. I have borrowed names as a form of honoring some people I know and/or respect, but the names are only that -- names, not the people themselves. Many are quite opposite of their namesakes. Some have a few similarities, but only when that works for the story. They are all bits and pieces of people I have known as well as strangers I've studied here and there, and ideas that represent what I want to say.

The first of the Rehearsal series, A Different Drummer, introduces readers to who the characters are in reality -- their dreams, hopes, fears, personalities, likes and dislikes, needs and desires. The Highest Aim moves toward their more public lives, beginning the contrast between reality and fantasy/hearsay. This was the crux of what started the series. I knew there was a difference. Even back as a teenager following favorite bands, I know what we saw wasn't the truth.

The thing about hearsay is that it multiplies and intensifies, often in destructive ways.


TC said...

Hello again LK,

Indeed, Jacques Derrida - the deconstructionist theorist extraordinaire, who famously said, "There is nothing outside the text." Oh, I could discuss and debate literary criticism all day and night! Other literary theorists that influence my thoughts and how I write, and read, include: Michel Foucault (What Is an Author?), Simone De Beauvoir (The Second Sex), and Jacques Lacan (The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience) to name but three.

I'm wondering if your definition of literary fiction, "the realities of life gathered into story format," is generally accepted by other writers of the genre? Not that it matters, really, it's just that if I were to write fiction, it'd be a lot more than story telling. Perhaps it's just how my muse, who I know for sure is all those above mentioned critics rolled into one, operates. I suspect this is how you relate to your own writings as well.

What I take from a reading might be completely opposite of what she takes from it, this is true in all things, for the most part.

Who was it that said, "Without the concept of error, truth does not exist?" I'm not sure it wasn't Derrida.

And now a comment about "Teacher's Pet." I don't quite know if this is meant as humor for young readers, or something much more serious for adults. Or am I reading too much into it? If it's meant as humor, the main character doesn't appear to be joking about much that takes place. And we don't get an opportunity to hear laughter from anyone in the story, or even feel jovial about what's transpiring. The narrator appears serious even though her actions are comical. I'm trying to understand if this short story is what you refer to as "literary fiction." My conclusion: undecided. But if there's an underlying message related to the effects of aging, don't fault me, I'm just constructing.

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi TC,

I have to say I'm not much into deconstructionist theory. I get what they're saying, but I don't see fiction as something that can be boiled down to one theory, much like religion. I think too much specific categorizing is harmful and limiting. Sometimes a wink is just a wink and its meaning may not have been intended as powerfully as the receiver takes it. It's impossible to know without the winker explaining, and even then, there are factors at work that he can't explain. The same is true with every element of fiction. So, to me, which specific theory to apply matters less than whatever the writer and reader get from it personally. That will vary. (I'm a Jung follower, by the way. I believe in focusing on the whole instead of on parts.)

Still, there's the market. When I write, I don't consider genre. I write what I need to write. When I market, however, I have to call it something to let readers know what to expect, at least to an extent. Marketing has been interesting. It's a balance between grabbing needed attention and staying true to your art.

By "story format" I mean pulling bits of life into neater packages than life is in actuality in order to assist understanding. With fiction, no matter the genre, you have to have a beginning-middle-end. I think literary/mainstream fiction has less actual "end" than genre fiction. There is always more beyond the story line than is written on the pages. There is a resolution or change of some sort by the time the book stops, but it leads to more ... thought, feelings, suppositions ... more than "they lived happily ever after" or "they found the villain and put him behind bars" or so on.

"more than story telling" ... This one has me baffled because story telling is very powerful to me. Everything we know, we know as stories. Everything we believe about ourselves, we believe because of stories -- either stories other people have told us about ourselves or stories we tell ourselves. We can't change the negatives in our lives until we learn to rewrite the stories. Our problems are not within us, they are within the stories we believe. (You might be interested in looking up Narrative Therapy.)

But, I think you mean it as referring to genre fiction?

"Teacher's Pet" was written off-the-cuff with a story prompt. I call it a comedy, although I guess it's a bit of a literary comedy since it has underlying themes of family relationships and an impulsiveness that makes it hard for this little kid to do and see things the same as others. The adults see him as naughty, but it's quite unintentional. There is a point there for parents and teachers. It likely makes more sense if you know there are ADD issues in my family, my own included.

I invited other mainstream authors to the discussion. With any luck, they'll join in.

TC said...

LK, just so you know, I'm not big on any one specific type of criticism; literary criticism in general was a huge interest of mine in college, I was invited to the lit crit grad program but declined.

I don't know a lot about marketing, I realize though, that it's very important to be able to sell what you write. And in order to sell it, you've got to know how to market it. When I finish writing my book I'll need some type of marketing plan.

The beginning, middle, and end format is easy to understand, it's the development and the course each of those three segments take that catches a reader, yes?

I'm probably not understanding your point when you say that story telling is powerful. I can understand and accept your concept if you're relating it to the oral tradition, but when it comes to things being written down, I always question authenticity, even Biblical writings were not authored by those books so named.

As a part time substitute teacher I'm very familiar with ADD. I've seen it used as a crutch more times than I'd care to mention. My wife called Teacher's Pet "weird," I think I'll get my two teens to read it and get their reactions.

LK Hunsaker said...

TC, I think I must have offended you in some way? I'm not sure how. It's hard to know how someone means something online.

I mean nothing against literary criticism. Writers need to know their craft and I've studied the basics of different theory. It's not my forte and I can't keep up with you in a deconstructionist or other specific theoretical conversation, other than with my own thoughts, which is all I was doing. I know of Derrida, yes, and the others you mention. I couldn't tell you which I prefer or the specifics of their viewpoints. I've studied more the craft of story writing than the critique of it. I critique fiction by reading novels and seeing what works and what doesn't, what I like and what I don't. I review other writers and am always glad to get reviews from other writers. I'm simply not much into studying literary critique theories. We all have our main interests. *shrug*

I'm wondering if you're using my short comedy as the basis to judge whether I actually write literary fiction. That comedy is not my normal genre. As I said, it was a simple writing prompt and I do occasionally venture into short works from prompts to stretch my roots. I've even done a bit of fantasy, although I don't read fantasy fiction.

If you have a different definition of literary fiction, by all means, say so. I've found, in the twelve years I've been studying the art of fiction writing, that many terms are defined differently in different circles. There is a constant argument as to what "literary" and "mainstream" really mean and no one clear answer.

I write about relationships, family issues, societal issues, and parenting issues, usually with a strong romantic element and always with very deep characterization, using my psychology background and life-long habit of studying people. You tell me what it should be called.

Wierd ... maybe it is. We all have our definitions of wierd, as well. Everyone has her own taste. I had a mom (someone I don't know) tell me she and her young daughters all adored the story. I'm sure it will be more fun for some than for others. All writing is the same. Some will enjoy it more than others.

For anyone else happening onto this post, the story is here:

Feel free to comment. :-)

I agree about the texts of what is supposedly non-fiction -- truth as we're supposed to believe they say it is. I also know the Bible has opinions of the men writing it and is not all actual fact. None of history is. It is all written from an opinionated view.

That doesn't decrease the power of stories, oral or otherwise. Journaling is one of the best therapies available. Stories ... well, we can discuss this better after you've spent a fair amount of time writing your own story. It is completely different than writing non-fiction. It has a different effect on the brain. Anyone who has been swept away by a good novel knows its power. I've done essays and articles and more college papers than I can recall. They do not affect me the way stories do. They have to stay within the "facts" and boundaries, while fiction pulls stuff from deep within your brain and psyche -- things you didn't consciously know were there. It pulls truths and ideas that are beyond facts and beyond the author's ability to know from where they came.

I can't explain more. It's something that has to be felt, not taught. (And that is not an insult. My beloved grandmother was a 5th and 1st grade teacher for over 30 years.)

Just a comment about ADD: not once have I ever used it as a crutch and I don't believe in using any difference as a crutch. It IS a difference. The brain pattern of those with ADD/ADHD is different than other brains. It shows on CT scans. It's also something you can't quite believe the power of until you've dealt with it personally. Like depression, you don't just "get over it" -- you learn coping methods. It is definitely over-diagnosed when discipline is generally the correct prescription, which makes it difficult for the rest of us. However, it apparently does not hold me back and I was not using it as an excuse for anything. I mentioned it as the basis for the comedy only. I'm sure many won't get the story because an ADD brain is very hard for others to understand.

My questions/explanations were simply wondering if I understood what you were asking or trying to say. Your comment about "more than storytelling" sounded condescending toward fiction in general but I was guessing you didn't mean it that way. I suppose I'm confused about just what it is you're wanting me to answer/explain.

Tor said...

Excuse an old country boy's butting in here but I may have a thought or two after reading this give and take over the issue of the story behind the book...that was the subject wasn't it?

Anyway, my thought is...yes, of course there is a great deal of fact woven into every work of fiction. That fact usually comes across as the point of view of the author and can be plainly perceived in his words.

Now what made me do a little double take was TC's reference to storytellers. Sounded just a tad on the condescending side to me. I am one of those simple storytellers and my stories are in the form of fiction, of course.

Personally I believe that if one is not a storyteller to some extent, then they might as well just stick to writing "How To" manuals.

The storyteller paints on a canvas of paper with words instead of oils. He/she must be able to paint the picture of their story that is completely believable; a picture that the reader can step into and feel that they are present during the telling. Every writer of fiction worth his salt, who has ever had any degree of success, has been a storyteller first and foremost.

Now as for that fellow, Derrida, well I don't know him from diarrhea. I also don't have a clue about any of that other abstract-thinking, deconstructionist theory, horse pucky.

I do know about telling a story though. I leave it to others, much smarter than myself to decide if what I write fits any certain genre, or as LK has told me often, is Literary Fiction...I don't care, as long as I have entertained the reader with a well-told tale. That, after all, is what writing boils down to...telling the story and getting it right.

TC said...

Tor, my intention was not to offend storytellers or be condescending to those who practice it. Being relatively new to reading fiction causes me to wonder how the art is created. And I speak only for myself; you and others surely have the right to tell stories, and write them, any way you see fit. I am only a literary critic in my own mind and I would never force my views on anyone or aim to purposely offend.

LK: First and formost, you have in no way offended. However, I was a little taken aback by tor's comment. Regardless, she probably meant no harm.

I've not read many novels and perhaps this has affected my ability to debate their merits. It's obvious you have a lot more knowledge about what it takes to be a writer of fiction than I and I am humbly aware of my inexperience.

No, I'm not "using" your short story to define how you might write literary fiction. How could I since it's only one example?
I do think I would enjoy reading more, and I would most probably read your novel Rehearsal: A Different Drummer as I liked the character development, even though it was just a short excerpt.

I have no agenda for debating here LK, other than the fact that I truly enjoy open and honest dialogue, as I'm sure you do also. As I mentioned, I'm not at all familiar with writing fiction, be it literary, fantasy, magical realism, or any other genre of the sort. Therefore, my definition of what literary fiction is or isn't would be very limited. I would never try to define a thing I had no knowledge of before attempting to learn more about it.

After reading what I wrote about ADD, I must offer a deeply felt apology because It's easy to see how it could've been taken the wrong way. My aim was to agree with you, not to imply that it was your crutch. I'm very sorry if you were offended, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.

Lastly, I'm not "wanting" anything more than to study and learn from other writers. Especially those who have authored published works. I might add that I think it takes more "creative genius" to write fiction than it does to write non-fiction. Is one genre or type of writing any better than the other? Of course not, as you said, "Everyone has her own taste."

I will continue reading your blog, and also hope to purchase your new novel soon.

Most warmly,


LK Hunsaker said...

Ah, and this conversation shows the power of writing, whichever kind it is. The hardest thing, as I see it, in writing fiction is to make sure your reader is getting what you mean as opposed to misunderstanding because of personal context. Writing meaning is so much harder than writing words, if that makes sense. I've seen it over and over online when something is taken completely opposite of the way it was meant.

I've learned to just ask when I'm not quite understanding how something is meant.

This happens easily in fiction, also, if we aren't very careful. Even if we are, it can happen. I reacted to "more than storytelling" differently than you meant it because I've heard enough derision from people who roll their eyes or nod politely and change the subject upon hearing I write fiction, especially if I say it's romance. There is a certain condescending attitude prevalent in circles of people who don't read/write fiction.

Within writing circles, even, there are those who judge harshly when a writer's style differs from "acceptable" straight-forward genres. I've known Tor a long time and know he's had to deal with this, as well. He is a mainstream/literary writer, although maybe I'm the only one who has called him that, with a country flare that reminds me of cowboys sitting around the campfire telling stories. It's wonderful writing and storytelling, although not "within bounds" as many prefer.

So understand if we get a bit defensive of our craft. You'll likely get to that point, also, as you get more deeply into the process. And I do hope you will.

I'm glad to have you here and glad to finally have real conversation going in this blog! My more personal, free-for-all blog is over at, a site you might have interest in:

[Beware, though, I do tend to be opinionated at times, if that's not noticeable already. I keep this one more professional.]

There are tons of writers there of all genres and it's been very helpful to me.

About ADD, trust me, I can't stand it being overdiagnosed or used as a crutch and am one of the first to yell about it. Even when it is actual ADD/ADHD (there's a difference), there are ways to deal with it. It doesn't excuse not doing homework. ;-) Tell them to use organic food when possible, if you're allowed to say so. It makes a big difference, especially with milk.

By the way, I don't think it takes more "creative genius" to write either fiction or non-fiction. It's just different. Some can do both and others can't ... or they don't take the time to learn the fundamentals of the different types. *shrug* You definitely have to be careful with how things are phrased with non-fiction, also. I think that ability is sadly lacking in much of both these days.

I look forward to hearing about that moment when, while writing fiction, you get that "wow, where did that come from?" feeling and understand the power of it. ;-)

Yes, I'm usually this verbose when I write. *blush*

TC said...

I can understand how "writing meaning" would be a challenge, does it not get easier with practice?

You mentioned asking when you don't understand something, and that's definitely the way to go when possible. But what's a reader to do when she comes upon something that she's not really sure about, suppose she gets it all wrong? It's bound to happen, with fiction and non-fiction. I guess it's a hazard of the trade.

I wonder if one has to acquire a taste for a particular type of fiction, say like you do for a certain brand of soda or beer? Oh I've read some fiction, George Orwell's 1984 comes immediately to mind, I read it for 11th grade English.

Doesn't fiction such as that offer much more than story telling? Isn't it more like writing "out of bounds?" And I hope you don't mind me using your phrase "within bounds" as a prompt for my use of "out of bounds." (Again, my use of the term "story telling" is not meant to offend. If there's another more befitting expression, please tell me what it is and I'll gladly delete "story telling" from my lexicon.)

I used to be a member of, I think it was there, or a similar site. I'll stop by and see what your "more personal, free-for-all" side is like.

I won't mind your verbosity if you promise not to get annoyed with my loquaciousness.

LK Hunsaker said...

Yes, I think writing meaning does get easier, not only with straight practice, but with reading other works and seeing when you "get it" and when you don't. Then it's easier to analyze why it didn't than with your own work.

There's no way of telling, of course, if a reader is taking everything the way you meant it. I imagine it doesn't always matter. Readers will get out of it what they want, I suppose. I do try to be available to readers if they question anything. Along with the blogs and the Myspace, I have a message board for book discussion, but it doesn't tend to be used. It could be they don't really want the author to say too much about it. And there is only so much I will say, anyway. The rest I want left up to the reader. This could be its own blog post, I suppose.

I woke up thinking about the "storytelling" phrase and it struck me that maybe "plotting" is what you mean. A book's plot can be pretty basic and not say much. In all honesty, my plots are fairly basic. It's everything else that is the "story" - so in that case, yes, I do much more than plotting. I've read authors worry about their plots being "stolen" and wonder if they don't know the plot doesn't matter that much. It's the story around it that matters and pulls readers. Of course, I'm sure that's different with genres such as mysteries that have plot twists carefully crafted.

So, I should say, in literary fiction, the plot is only a basic thing. It's the foundation on which to tell the story. Yes, I think that would be writing "out of bounds" instead of within them.

John Irving, for example, wrote a book about a female tattoo artist. The plot was simple enough. She has a kid with a man she's obsessed with and spends her days searching for him, dragging her young kid around to different tattoo parlors in different cities. There's not much more to the plot than that, but the story is psychological and emotional, jumping from the mother's mental state to the child's, and leading us to wonder what effect this will have on him. It's called "Until I Find You" and although I'm an Irving fan, I stopped reading in the middle. I intend to finish, but it wanders more than his normal stuff and I got tired of it. You might try "The Fourth Hand" or any of his other work. I read "1984" in high school, also. Yes, it's literary, also, but Irving has more real life in it, more real grit.

I don't create plots, really. I create characters and then put them where they need to be to tell the story I want to tell. Many authors do it the other way around. You can generally tell, I think. Tor, still here? Agree?

Do we acquire a taste for certain genres? *shrug* I think my preference for Coke over Pepsi is just there, just as I'd rather read literary fiction than horrors. Generally, the type of book you like to read is the best type to write. My son said the other day I should write a sci fi. Well, since I don't read it, I'm not likely to write it successfully (even if I like Star Trek and the original Star Wars, lol). I am trying my hand at a young adult literary novel, but I'm finding it hard to get the right feel and voice since I don't read YA. He read part of what I wrote but it bored him. *laugh* It's still on the burner.

TC said...

Sometimes I wonder what my audience thinks as they're reading. Do they hear a male or female voice? Do I sound trustworthy? The editor of the paper I write for says reading my articles is like talking to me in person, so I guess that's my "writer's voice." But it's my voice. I'm sure it's possible for an author to have more than one voice. I don't know if I'd recognize him/her if she/he were to speak for me in a work of fiction. I think I'd be afraid, but not terrified, could still write, tell the story. I think.