Laura Jok is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Houston. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review. This is her third year on the Gulf Coast staff.
I Lied about Lying: Fiction, Truth, and Brutally Accurate Mimicry
Feb 14, 2013
Over a bottle of wine, a writer friend of mine once caught me telling the truth. I drained my glass and forgot how to end sentences and started telling the story about a woman I knew who had dated Voldemort. "I remember that story," my friend said. I assumed that I must have told her already, but she said, no, she remembered it from the short story that I had submitted to our fiction workshop.
It was my own fault for not disguising the story better. I lifted the character in question wholesale from real life because he was uninventable and I couldn't resist. With his fuchsia-veined bald head and flat nose, he bore a striking resemblance to the villain of the Harry Potter series. I didn't even change his name because it was gorgeously, perfectly, impossibly--Tom.
I admitted it. I had lied about lying when the truth was that I had been telling the truth. I felt queasy. It wasn't because I worried that my friend might assume that my stories were all autobiographical. We're not supposed to, but most readers assume that anyway. It also wasn't because I think that there is anything unethical about borrowing from real life as long as you protect your sources. As Margaret Atwood writes in her craft book Negotiating with the Dead, "the usual writerly methods½resemble the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests." In fact, the process of writing fiction is free-associative enough that often, you will not consciously know all of your sources.
But here's the thing about fiction writers: we privately believe that politeness is the only thing that stands between us and omniscience. If we aren't careful, one day, we will write something True and then we will be in huge trouble. The people who inspired our characters will recognize themselves and storm our desks, shouting, "How dare you! Give me back my verbal tic!" and we will work very hard to seem guilt-stricken instead of guilt-stricken and deeply impressed with ourselves.
This is the fiction writer's worst fear and greatest desire. Take away the buffer of fiction and what we do is quite intrusive and rude. We observe, we imitate, and if we cling too close to real life and real people, what we do becomes less like mimesis and more like mockery.
Read: Stop copying me.
Stop copying me!
Without the excuse of fiction, characterization becomes indistinguishable from the impressions of classmates and teachers that got me into trouble as a kid. My behavior came as a shock to my victims because I was quiet and polite to a fault. I was excused, like most bright children, on the assumption that, if I were acting out, I must be bored.
I was the opposite of bored. If anything, I was too interested. Like many adult fiction writers, I felt accosted by detail, obsessed by gesture, burdened with omniscience, and pissed about it. I saw myself as a weary prophet, fated to notice the absurdities of the universe that everyone else had apparently agreed to ignore. In this way, I developed a big fat Cassandra Complex at a young age, and like most smart young girls, I padded my feelings of alienation with plaid and rage. And zeugma. I decided that the world must suffer.
Let me point out a few things about the craft of imitation. You have to do it well to be caught in the act. That is, your impression has to be a good enough likeness for someone to recognize its source. The person who catches you is usually not the victim unless your impersonation includes too much clunky exposition. The truth is that you could imitate someone to their face all day and they might never realize it. They have no idea what they look like from the outside--and you do.
By imitating, we take advantage of the blind spots of others, knowing that they cannot defend themselves. I don't sound like that, they could say, sounding like that. I don't look like that, they could say, looking like that. Imitation is the highbrow form of cruelty.
Austen's Emma features a haunting scene in which Emma mimics her neighbor Miss Bates in her presence. The reader can see that Emma has nailed Miss Bates's longwinded and vapid prattle, but Miss Bates can tell only that she is being mocked. Hurt, she responds to Emma in the same style, down to the punctuation, heartbreakingly confirming the accuracy of Emma's impression. Mr. Knightley witnesses this scene and chastises Emma for taking advantage of Miss Bates's defenseless position.
I don't doubt that Austen knew a Miss Bates in real life and felt uneasy about co-opting her in fiction. By allowing Knightley to scold Emma for presuming to--well--act like a narrator, Austen holds herself accountable for her treatment of her characters. What is narration, what is free-indirect discourse, if not brutally accurate mimicry?
Writers of fiction run the risk of reducing other people to instruments of our cleverness--but that doesn't mean that we have to. There is a difference between surface-level imitation, no matter how clever, and genuine empathy.
I worry sometimes that I am making poor use of my empathy. If I were a little bit less like myself, I might be a doctor or therapist. I have the capacity to say, and mean, otherwise trite things like, "I feel your pain," or "And how are we feeling today?" I know, however, that I could not trust myself to see patients. I might weep, vomit, or worst of all, stare. Glassy-eyed with rapture, I might murmur, "That's interesting." I might think of how I could make a project out of this pain, ignoring such banal physical solutions as bandages and antibiotics.
Knowing this about myself, I aspire to approach fiction from a place of empathy and humility. I try to recognize the limitations of my perspective and write outside my own experience in order to understand, not to show off. The fact that you are yourself and not someone else is a beautiful and arbitrary accident, and fiction writers have the gift, or at least the aspiration, to recognize that. We have little use for the boundaries between our feelings and the feelings of others. When we say, "How are we feeling today?" we are genuinely asking. Behind every snarky omniscient line hides a sloppy sentimental who wants to see everyone with the same indulgence and understanding that we reserve for those we love.
When I called my mother the other day and said, "How are you?" she responded, "Your father is concerned about commuting to work in this weather." She transitioned seamlessly into a close third-person narrative in my father's perspective: waking at five in the morning and realizing that we were out of oatmeal, scraping snow off the windshield of his car, digging his way out of the driveway, hydroplaning on the highway--coffee from the cup holder slopping onto his knees--did he remember to leave the wool blanket and shovel in his trunk in case of car trouble? She decided that she should call and check on him. She ended her story like she ends all of her stories. "And that's all I know," she said.