This is the third guest post on the craft of writing in our series by authors of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a short story anthology edited by Liz Prato, and published by my press, Forest Avenue Press, following pieces by Trevor Dodge and Steve Denniston.
Alisha Churbe’s story, “All Is Not Lost,” is a remarkable story told in letters by a woman who has found a man’s wallet behind a toilet in the women’s restroom at Darryl’s Pit Stop. It’s one of twenty-two pieces in the short story anthology, featuring writers from all across Oregon, and its aching mix of hope and humor and heartbreak won our hearts.
Sometimes Lies Must Be Told
By Alisha Churbe
A friend told me that she forgets fiction doesn’t always have to be 100 percent untrue and inversely non-fiction must be 100 percent true. Black and white. But there are many shades of gray (perhaps fifty). As a writer on either side of the fiction fence, I get to choose my elements and include whatever I decide. If I continue with this metaphor, black could be absolute truth and white as absolute untruth. Fiction may give less boundaries, but there are still rules. Fiction writing will most likely reside in the lighter shades of gray, nearer to white. Nonfiction will fall into the darker shades of gray, closer to black. Know the rules, but also how to break them. Fiction could reside near black by including very true elements (setting, plot, character, etc.) but could have elements of white added (time, character, setting, etc.)
The most successful fiction is true, or at least true enough. Characters can’t be 100 percent lies. Characters need to have mannerisms, flaws, ambitions and speech patterns that are believable and relatable. If the reader can’t relate to the character, they find it tough to care about them. Your character may be blessed with your sister’s style of dress, a co-worker’s voice and your ex-boyfriend’s affection for mayonnaise on everything. Is that character “untrue”? No, but they don’t actually exist. One of my favorite writing exercises begins with, “they are the type of person who ….” I am always amazed at the interesting characters I create in this way. Or I’ll use it as a way to find myself out of or into a new story by getting to know my character better.
Conversely, nonfiction has moments of untruth or grays, despite our best efforts. Put ten people who witnessed an event in a room and ask them to write down what they saw and experienced. You’ll have ten different stories as everyone saw and experienced the event differently; none of the accounts will be all truth, but will vary in shades of darker grays. In writing a story of your grandmother at a specific time, you may mention that your grandmother was wearing a green dress that day. Maybe she wasn’t, but maybe she did have a green dress you particularly remembered. If you said, Nana was in a green dress that day, no one will argue with you. No one was there with you. The only way you’d run into trouble is if you were describing my Gram who happened to hate the color green. In that case, no one is going to believe you when you say it. I hereby freely admit that I steal things from people I know, meet, and encounter.
When you write non-fiction, they are your memories of your experience. No one has these same memories–others may share similar memories but not yours specifically. Even with things like an object or a specific event, others may remember it, but not the same way you do. They may not even have the same feelings you do toward the object or event. They may not even remember it at all. Does that make yours or their story any less true? Nope. In a piece I’m writing about my grandmother, I imagine her telling me about the Great Wall of China and that she wanted to “dance on that wall someday.” I don’t know if she ever truly said that or if I just imagined it as something she would say. I tell my mom and uncle that she said it and it sounds so much like her, they believe it as well. I don’t remember the time she said it to me, but in my memory, she definitely did so.
As writers, we have certain shades of gray truth that we must follow. There is no rule that says it must be either black or white or else. The beauty resides in the grays. Steal and pillage for character traits, settings, objects, structure, and make it all your own. No one will argue with you.
Thanks so much for this wonderful essay, Alisha!
Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon, but is always planning her next international escape. If you can pry the pen from her hand, she can be found with her splendid husband, their amusing friends, and a delicious meal with wine. Learn more about her at alishachurbe.com.