Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Mechanics of Writing: Autobiography or Fiction?

In every author's fiction, eventually one asks the question: how much of this is "true" and how much is "made up?"

Stephen King, for example, sets the majority of his books in small-town Maine, where he grew up and has lived most of his life.  When he set "The Shining" in a Colorado resort hotel, he was living in Colorado at the time.  Many of his protagonists (Stuttering Bill from "It," Paul Sheldon from "Misery," Michael Noonan from "Bag of Bones," as well as the lead characters in "Salem's Lot," "The Shining," and "The Body," to name a few) are writers.  It would be foolish to assume that there was not at least an element of autobiography present in his works.

John Irving's characters almost always attend an exclusive New England private school, as he did.  Sometimes the actual school, Exeter, is used, sometimes not.  Irving himself has said this is autobiographical; he writes the school experience for his characters that he is familiar with.

Jane Austen was inspired to write "Pride and Prejudice" after her own unlucky foray into the world of matrimony.  Jane had a Charles Bingley in her own life, whose family objected to his wedding a girl of no important family and no dowry, but there was no Mr. Darcy to set things right.  In "Pride and Prejudice," one can imagine that Elizabeth Bennet is, perhaps, the girl Jane Austen wanted to be, and Mr. Darcy the man she wished her would-be husband had been.  (Interestingly, her own family contained a Lydia-like scandal; her brother ran off and lived with a married woman much older than himself.)

I imagine in any work of fiction, there are autobiographical traits one can find if that is what one wants to do.  As a writer, the question I am always trying to answer is, "Am I writing what is truly happening for the character, or what I want to happen?"  In other words, authors who use fiction as wish-fulfillment had better do a very good job (as Jane Austen did) to avoid their stories becoming trite bits of fluff.

I recently completed (maybe) a short novel (about 50,000 words) that I'm terribly afraid will come off as wish-fulfillment.  It's about a 35-year-old woman (professional singer) who has an emotional affair with a 24-year-old man (scruffy yet attractive composer).  Conflict and murder ensue.  I have absolutely no real desire for any man, of any age, other than my husband, but you can see my dilemma.  If, perchance, someone was to read this book, I don't ever want them walking away from it saying, "Wow, that lady really wants to have an affair with a 24-year-old man."

I think I have a good imagination.  I can imagine what it would feel like, for example, to be beaten up, although it's never happened to me.  I can imagine what it would be like to have abusive parents (as my main character in my first novel did) even though I didn't.  I could imagine what it felt like to be a vampire, even though, to my knowledge, I don't subsist on the blood of my enemies.  Still, in this age of complete personal transparency, the first assumption about fiction seems to be that it must be rooted, somehow, in fact.  It's a hard call to make, sometimes, when I'm trying to figure out what a character is doing next.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is to say, "What would I do in this situation?"

Then, make sure the character does anything but that!

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Don't Make the Rules

I don't know who decided it, but it's a rule: farts are funny.

Instance one:  In a second-grade music class, the teacher says, "Now we're going to look at the instruments.  Everyone needs to be absolutely quiet and listen or you might not get to play today."  As the teacher begins to move, a little girl about the size of a thimble (but cuter) lets one rip that, had it emerged from a 200-pound teamster, would have been heroic.  Coming from that tiny thing, it was almost miraculous.  Torn between shock and awe, the teacher froze as the class erupted in laughter.  Worse, the teacher, who is, after all, only human, could not help but laugh.  Order was restored eventually, but it was a delicate balance: one small puff of air would have sent their fragile house of discipline crashing to the ground.

Why are these completely natural bodily emissions funny?  And why are they funny to EVERYONE?  I don't mean every person, but I have yet to meet one "type" of person who consistently does not find farts funny.

Example: Princess was about four months old the first time she deliberately farted against the bottom of the bathtub and giggled.  Precocious?  Gifted?  Genius?  Certainly.

Example 2: The other day, Dexy was in the bath.  He was splashing happily while I got the towels ready and I heard, "Mommy!  Come here!"  I went to the side of the tub where he was standing, a look of intense concentration on his face.  He held out a hand for mine.  As he clasped my hand, he farted.  He laughed, still holding my hand, for about two full minutes, became serious, looked me in the eye, and said, "I poot."  Then he did it again.

I have heard that there are some cultures in which farting is completely commonplace.  No one notices them at all, they are like random coughs.  So obviously, it's our social taboo on the whole subject of digestion and excretion that makes farts (and fart jokes, and poo jokes, and toilet humor in general) funny.  The forbidden is always a good source of comedy.

Of course, it can go too far, and I think we can all agree that when it does, it stops being funny and is just gross.  What we can't agree on is where that line is; to one person, the bathroom scene in "Dumb and Dumber" is completely disgusting and absolutely devoid of any humor at all, whereas another gets the giggles just thinking about it as she types her blog.

Tee hee.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Worsties

It's awards season time again, and, as I have documented in my blog over the past year, the only bad thing about awards shows is that there aren't enough of 'em for me!  I mean, with only the People's Choice, the Critic's Choice, the Screen Actor's Guild, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, the American Music awards, the Video Music Awards, the Country Music Awards, the Grammy's, the Emmy's, and the Oscars, I am in serious danger of having to make my own decisions regarding what is worth my time and attention.  This, people, is what causes outbreaks of cultural tumors like Jersey Shore.  It is a serious problem.

To combat this plague upon our society, I would like to propose my own award show, along the lines of the People's Choice, but instead of picking the best, we will pick the worst.  Fortunately, 2009 offered us an abundance of things to loathe, so this will be a real challenge.

The nominees for Worst Musical Trend are:
  1. Dollar signs in one's name instead of "s"
  2. Having Kanye guest on your album
  3. Singing a duet with a legend, which only highlights one's own shortcomings

The nominees for Worst Television Show are:
  1. Jersey Shore
  2. The Real Housewives of New Jersey
  3. The Real Housewives of the O.C.
  4. The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Winner:  All of us.

The nominees for Worst Human Being are:
  1. Carrie Prejean
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Perez Hilton
  4. The Kardashians
  5. Jon Gosselin
  6. Kate Gosselin
  7. Tiger Woods

As a result of a last-minute write in campaign

The nominees for Worst Corporate Mistake are:

[Nominations closed, this was a no-brainer.]

The nominees for Worst Award Show are:


The nominees for Worst Way to End This Entry are:

  1. My face-in-a-hole picture of me with Rob Pattinson
  2. A retelling of the time Momz was entertaining us at the mall with straws in her nose, then realized that she was in public and several people were openly staring at her.
  3. A lengthy description of Princess' latest escapades, in which I make it clear that she is the most gifted child in the world ever.
  4. At least until I get to Dexy, who is clearly equally gifted, as evidenced by his ability to appreciate the humor in flatulence, both his own and others'.

(Please feel free to leave me your suggestions for other categories and nominees!)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Letting Go: An Open Letter

Dear Project Runway,

I'm sorry to tell you in a letter, but things have to end between us.

You've changed.  At first, when you were gone for so long, I thought I could accept you on any terms, so desperate was I for you.

Now I know better.

Though we were together for five years.  I don't take that lightly.  But a relationship works two ways!  After five years, you move (to Lifetime), you change (from New York to Los Angeles), and you become some vapid, shallow image of your former self, with no thought to how that affects me?

No, I'm sorry.  I thought I could take a break and give you some time, but here you are, back for another season barely two months after the pitiful end to Season 6, and I'm just not ready.

Maybe, one day, we can be together again.  For now, we'll always have Season 2.