Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Life vs. Fiction

By Pat Remick

“Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.”

So reads one of the writing-related sayings scattered around my office and today, the anniversary of my brother’s birth, it seems more relevant than usual.

Writers know well how real life can be stranger than fiction. All around us we see and experience things that, with just the right twist, could become kernels of great novels, plots for intriguing mysteries or the seeds of unforgettable short stories.

But the realities we observe do not always make sense. An editor might say they need a better beginning or a stronger finish. Or we may never understand the true motivation of the “characters” involved. In fiction, we can correct such things. Unfortunately, we cannot always do the same in life.

For example, someone would have to create the opening chapter of my brother’s story. The first time I saw him was the day my parents traveled to a meeting at Catholic Charities to discuss adoption and unexpectedly returned with a baby son.

Today he is a father, grandfather, successful businessman and respected member of his community. But for much of his life, his origins have been mostly a mystery that only recently he has wanted to solve. What little he’s learned is so compelling that the writer part of me could easily turn it into the plot of a novel.

As a fiction writer, it’s also easy to play the “what if” game. What if his birth mother had not given him up for adoption in what we now know was a supreme act of love? What if she had come looking for him? What if his birth parents had learned what a fine man he has become? What if he had not been so strong in his belief that his true parents are the people who loved and raised him, not those who created him? Each of our stories would have changed and every answer to a "what if" would have propelled our lives in different directions.

Even today, many of the circumstances surrounding his birth remain unknown. His birth certificate was recently unsealed, but it does not list his birth father’s name. He has been told his birth mother’s immediate family is dead. So it’s unlikely there ever will be a denouement, or unraveling of the complexities of his beginnings.

The “fixer” part of me aches to help make sense of this. Unfortunately, it is a gift I cannot offer. It is, however, a reminder that life’s chapters are often not as complete or as detailed as we’d like. Maybe that’s one reason why writing fiction can be so satisfying. It allows us to choose the beginning and the ending, and try to create a world that makes sense in between.


Annette said...

Happy Birthday to your brother, Pat.

I do love that quote, by the way.

My very first attempt at crime fiction happened many years ago because of a series of local unsolved murders. I wrote about them and MY detectives solved the case. Reality very rarely offers the satisfaction of everything neatly tied up at the end.

But your brother's BEGINNINGS...ahhh, the possibilities are intriguing.

Tory said...

Yes, I agree. In fiction we can resolve the unresolvable, know the unknowable.

Joyce said...

Fascinating post. Annette's right--the possibilities are intriguing.

Maybe your brother needs to put on a historian's or a genealogist's hat if he wants to dig a little deeper. If they can figure out who someone's father was two hundred years ago, you'd think it would be possible with more recent information.

Maybe that's wishful thinking, though. I think I just hate dead ends and unanswered questions. That's why I'm a writer--I can tie everything up nice and neat!

Pat Remick said...

I wonder what the shrinks would say about our writer needs to tie things up so neatly!

As a journalist, it sometimes has been difficult for me to understand why my brother wasn't more curious over the years. I've offered to help him search. But he is very much at peace with all of it, and incredibly grateful for his blessings. I have to respect that. But it hasn't stopped me from playing "what if"!

Jennie Bentley said...

Interesting. I don't know anything about my father's family - he grew up in foster care and had five siblings, all fostered in the same area but with different foster families - and I do know his parents' names, but I don't know anything beyond that. If he does, he's never been willing to talk about it. Sometimes I wonder if I should dig a little deeper, try to figure out what this woman did to lose six children and her husband, but my father seems as peace with it - like your brother, he's a wonderful man - and I figure as long as he is, I can be, too. Still, sometimes I speculate...

My verification word is 'chemati'. The glitterati, but with chemists...?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Now see, I'd buy this scenario in fiction because it is so plausible and could be the basis for fiction instead of a convenient resolution.

I think the story of your brother could be written in many different ways and the what-ifs could bend the story into so many different directions.

Where I find the "Truth is stranger than fiction" distracting is when an author boxes himself/herself in and takes the easy route using some strange, unplausible circumstances as a way out.

Case in point, as my first book rushes to a conclusion, it dawned on me that my protagonist could have picked up her cell phone and made a call in an attempt to avert a disaster. That wouldn't have made a very compelling climax and since the action takes place in northern Wyoming, several people recommended just using "Can you hear me now?" the dreaded dead cell tower zone. Dropped calls and no signals happen all the time in real life, but I couldn't bring myself to use that cop out and the finale that came out of all the agonizing was worth it (I think.)

Rebecca Talley said...

I agree, life is stranger than fiction. Real life can sometimes be so strange that it defies explanation.

Great blog and interesting story about your brother. I guess, though, that "what if?" can be applied to all of our lives.