Friday, April 24, 2009

Writing Tip #16 - Tell the Truth

I was sitting at an open mic a couple weeks ago and the poetry was red hot, bawdy and funny. The poets had the audience eating out of their hands. We were clearly being entertained by some of the most talented and quick poets in town. The stand out pieces involved a zany coming out story that included motor oil, a game of ding dong ditch by a burly 42-year-old had us gasping for air, and the 21 year-old who realized her breast weren’t ever going to get any bigger was sad and funny.

Then a poet got up on the mic and did something that got my attention for a different reason. She disclosed that she had written a piece while she was sitting in the audience and wanted to share. Now before I tell you the rest of the story, I have to disclose that I am absolutely a snob when it comes to poets who share freshly minted venue poems. I simply have never experienced one that was worth writing down and sharing as a first draft. I think the whole thing is about showing off and trying to get in on the action. That being said - back to the story.

She let us know that the ding dong ditch poem had inspired this little ditty. The next two minutes were painful. The once rowdy and receptive audience became stone cold silent. At the end she got a tepid round of applause and we moved on as if she never even showed up on our radar.

I spoke to a few folks after the reading and every one of them brought up that poet. The unanimous feedback was that we did not believe her. Even setting aside the fact that she wrote the poem at the venue, it just didn’t ring true.

Now before everyone gets ready to hit the comment button, I am quite aware that poets/writers/painter/sculptors make up things all the time. Every day writers write about something that they have never personally experienced. But in order to be a really good weaver of tales, you have to remember, every story starts with the truth then the “lies” are smoothed on top.

Case in point: I was listening to a crime story novelist talk about his career and the interviewer asked had he had any prior experience in the law (or even on the other side of the law) because his work was so vivid and realistic. He said as an only child he created a private detective alter ego (he was/is a huge comic book geek) and he spent the summer of ’73 staking out his neighbors and “solving” crimes. That summer he saw all kinds of things; the woman across the street who was visited every day by her gardener as soon as her husband left for work. The college kids home on break that were growing and selling weed. The maid who had pool parties at her employers’ house while they were away on vacation. He wrote down everything he saw in his little detective steno pad. When he started writing crime stories/thrillers as an adult he decided to reach back into that summer and pull elements from it. As a kid he didn’t have the well of knowledge to guess what was going on behind the scenes once his neighbors closed their doors, but as an adult all that changed. He had developed language to go along with his imagination that allowed him to make up the rest of the story. This interview is a perfect example that at the core there is a nugget of truth that the writer can relate to and take that thread of truth through the entire piece. If you need a visual representation of this concept, rent a copy of The Usual Suspects.

I ran into the 42-year-old ding dong ditcher at a coffee shop a couples days ago. I teased him and asked if his ex-girlfriend ever figured out it was him ringing her doorbell at 2:00 in the morning. He laughed and reluctantly let me in on the secret. The poem wasn’t true. He had not ding dong ditched anyone in over 25 years. It turns out that Ashton Kutcher threatening to ding dong ditch Ted Turner’s house if he got a million twitter followers before CNN was his inspiration. The poet simply merged his experience as a 12 year old pulling this prank and fused it onto what he imagined the 30 plus year old actor would look like pulling the same stunt and changed Ted Turner into the unsuspecting ex-girlfriend.

Remember, the best liars always start with the truth.


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