Fictionalizing the World
what a bike ride taught me about writing
In the distance, in this little nook just off the bike path, a clearing where a bench faced the Colorado River, trash is littered everywhere. It's a peaceful day, people jogging, walking dogs, and taking strolls in company. But as my bike rolls closer, the wind lunges at the surrounding trees and they begin to wrestle.¹
Ahead, hundreds of sheets of paper strewn about. Pages in the bushes, pages around the bench, and braking at the foot of the scene, pages in the water too. I hop off and lean my bike against the bench. What's going on?
Resting in the middle of the scattering, this poor Bible. It is a red and white bible, on the cover KJV in giant letters. Its binding has gaps where the pages were torn out. Someone is alone, I thought.
Behind me, I check to see if others care. People busying about, just thinking, "another pile of trash in Austin," move on with their Starbucks coffees. I try to hint to a woman in eyeglasses, try to connect eyes with her and gesture like what the hell is going on here, but she scurries by. Screw it. No one has time to stop and explore — unlike this lonely soul.
Underneath a bush, a page catches my attention; it has scribbles in blue ink. The text is circled which reads, "God, Please Help Me." My heart sinks.
Hearing the footsteps of the people passing by without a second thought, my heart further plummets.
I catch eyes with a man who's walking a terrier, I ask, "You see this?"
"Wow, looks like a mess," he says and keeps walking.
IT'S MORE THAN A MESS. How can I make someone stop their day to see what I see?
The bible. I crouch down to the bush, pluck the blue inked page out, and carry it past dirty pages strewn about towards the poor bible. I position it next to the bible so that they create a focal point, the shredded bible and GOD PLEASE HELP ME, surrounded by hundreds of pages, verses scattered about the land.
"Oh gosh," a voice rings out from behind me, "How sad."
I swivel and stand. From under her visor, her eyes soften into a melancholic shape, little crescent moons.
"Right, how sad," I say.
"Makes my heart sink," she says. And walks on.
Looking back at the page, I wonder. A deep closeness settles, as my eyes crescently bend.
The page! My eyes widen and dart back to the bush where I found it. If I hadn’t moved this page, she would have never felt what I feel. The life behind the pile of trash.² A smile rises over the melancholy.
I swing my leg back onto my bike. And although I'm tempted to bunch all the pages up into the bible and take the chaotic mess back home with me, something tells me it's best left be. Perhaps my fabrication will make someone else pause and reflect. As I bike home, I smile knowing my world is in the world.
Hey Dear Reader
As a writer, how could I alter details of my stories and scenes so that my feelings are easily felt by busy people?
Let's say, you're writing a story about that time you found a dead rat on the side of a busy street and about your desire to move him to the grass. Your message is love and care for something that hundreds of people pass by without a second thought. You want to change the way they feel about this rat specifically. But before anyone gives your feeling a chance, they all just think you're some peace and love hippie who doesn’t understand the world and they won't read on.So instead, let’s tell it as if you found a dog, a dog others could care for. What breed and age of a dog?Well a Goldendoodle puppy is actually unbelievable since no one could pass her by, all would see her tiny, famished spine concaving against the curb as articles of trash tumble across her and they would tear up, (and so your message won't land). Something mangier but less diseased than a rat. You decide on an adult muddied terrier mix of some sorts, one of those who when you try and pick him up, your fingers catch in his knotted scruffy hair.That'll drive the message home! And that will make my message easy to consume so that people busying by with their Starbucks can understand my message without doing much work.
Is that lying to the reader?
I passionately believe it's not — if it doesn't matter to YOU.
We can't know what matters to the reader (and thus what the reader would consider a lie). But I do know what matters to me and that isn't whether it's a rat or a dog nor the location of the bible page, none of that matters to me. In this rat story (and the bible story), what matters to me is the feeling that I want to share. THIS ISN'T TRASH TO STEP OVER, IT'S SO MUCH MORE. A desire to help this poor rat. The desire to rest its body on a soft bedding and prop its head up with a rock. The desire to curl it into a fetal position as it moves into its next life, no matter if that's darkness or the king of another world.
Fictionalizing the world brings others into my world.
Thank you for reading.
11 Nov 2021
¹ One of my favorite ideas is how our motivations shape what we see in the world. I remember this Tony Robbins exercise. Try it: For the next 15 seconds, look around the room for anything blue. Then, do the same with red. Our motivations, such as "find all blue objects", dictate what we literally see in the world.As too with characters in stories, their motivations dictate what they see. This is why, I believe, in movies when characters are in a dark place internally, it's always fucking raining. The world is colored through a melancholy lens.In my own life, I've had sad days when it's sunny, and I hear people outside my house happy and socializing about, say, a cute puppy, yet I hear is the woman's shrill voice and her loud talking distracting me from writing. Because of my mood (and motivations) I can't share that sunshine with her. And clouds rolling in with buckets of rain would make my life soooo much easier.How this looks in drafting stories. In my initial draft, my character when enjoying nature and the peaceful bike path. So when he saw the trees blowing with the wind, "the trees danced with the wind." In later drafts, my character was angry (from his struggle to write a story) so now, "the trees wrestled the wind".These subtle changes in descriptions show us our character's internal workings.
² Something I realized while writing this. Artists pause and poke around in places where most people to too caught up in life to poke around. And while doing so, they discover hidden meaning that passers-by are too busy to see. "The life behind a pile of trash". It reminds me of The Plastic Bag scene, dancing in the wind, in American Beauty. Most people have too much on their mind and their focus too much on life problems to even see a bag of trash blowing in the wind — let alone see it as a dance, a dance with a benevolent force behind all things. Meaning in the unseen.It's the same in writing. People are busy. When they read, they skim and they gloss over; they have a lot on their mind. They don't want to hear about all of our time poking around and discovering the life behind things. They want all that distilled into a message. By fictionalizing unimportant details, we make that message easy for even the busiest and more distracted of people to consume.
³ I ALMOST included a preface. Previously I tried combining the fictional rat/dog story and the real-life bible/bike story. I thought my character could be struggling to write this story about the rat and through this experience with the bible, realizes his solution. He must change the rat to a dog. BUT for the life of me I couldn't figure it out. I finally decided, okay let's include a preface that says after a week of trying to make this story work, I want to move on. I’ve worked hard. But it's only good with the proper context. And I struggled to weave that context in. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Sorry reader, I didn't have time to make this work so I will commit a writing sin and tell you the context.(Instead I spilt the stories apart and the essay was shorter and truer for it.)