Fact, Fiction, or the Gospel Truth?

Let’s talk about bells for a minute.

We all have some experience with bells. I know of a little glass one, for example, that was rung discretely at a Central Park West dining table to beckon the servant. And another that jingled so engagingly when a particular pastry shop door opened on the Left Bank of Paris. The first bell speaks to privilege and the latter is reminiscent of youthful romance. But there were more profound bells in my life.

When I was young, I summered on the shores of Lake Erie and roamed what, to my child’s eye, was a vast amount of leafy acreage. And when it was time for dinner, my grandmother rang a loud and beat-up cowbell, and I came running.

Fast forward some forty years, and I’m raising my kids on a lake with leafy acreage here in Vermont. And there’s a bell mounted to a tree, down by the water. Apart from its various uses in various games, its prime purpose is to sound an alarm if someone falls off a swing, or gets stung by a bee, or otherwise runs into trouble, as it’s a long way up the hill to make such announcements in person.

It’s a lovely, sonorous sound, and like the cowbell of old, it’s emblematic of connection between parent and child, caring, and communication—subjects that run deep.

Now, what if I were to use a bell in something I was writing? I could choose an ornamental expression of it, but I could also call upon the most profound of my bell images—the one that speaks of connection—and reinvent it to fit the story.

What would I call that bell? Is it nonfiction? Is it fiction? Is it some hybrid fusion of genres that booksellers have no idea how to treat?

As fiction writers, we take the facts we know, spin them around in our storytelling art, and try to get at truth. Not sure what to call this mix?

Call it fiction and, possibly, add an appropriate tagline, like “based on a true story,” or write up your equivocal thoughts about it in an author’s note, attached as an addendum.  (I always read the author’s notes, by the way, and maybe even first.)

But until we get a well-established  “mostly fiction” (“faction”) category, or a “somewhat autobiographical” genre, or “the whole truth, so help me God” category, a fiction label is the only choice, even if, in blending fact and fiction, you get closer to the gospel truth than either, by itself, would allow.

Interested in hearing more about truth in art, and art used to tell the truth? Go here, where you’ll find a short clip on the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. He makes the point that if you’re not telling the truth, big or small, what are you?

What are you writing these days? Fact, fiction, or something even closer to the truth?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: Bell with beaded cord – rockdoggydog; cowbell – soil-net.com

Be Doing

It isn’t true, as some maintain, that the Chinese language has no tenses. I could, if I wanted, and especially if I studied harder, convey my sentiments of past events or future expectations.

But the tense I particularly admire, and an easy one to use, relies on uses the word zai, said like you mean it: zai!, forefinger raised in emphasis.  Loosely translated, it means be doing. I am zai typing this, for example, or zai walking the dog.

As I learn about the Chinese culture, there is a lot of zai going on. Be doing, and get going if you’re not.

The other night, in a roundtable conversation about the creative process, with an emphasis on my favorite subject—writing—I passed on the zai observation. It’s fine to gather information, to mull it over, go have a beer or a coffee as it suits you and try to size things up, but then comes the doing. Try something, anything.  Be doing and see where it takes you. Even if all you generate is trash, it gives you something to sift through in the morning, a place to begin while you zai your coffee.

As this can be a painful process, it bears mention that it works a lot better if you’re nice to yourself. After all, yesterday, you were at it, you were be doing, which is the reason  work sits before you at this moment, whatever your reactions to it now. Being uncomfortable—even disappointed—is necessary for change.

Photo Credit: studioroosegarde.net

What’s Important?

At the café the other day, a writer-friend of mine named Bill noted the approach of his 65th birthday and announced that it was time to let go of everything except what was valuable. If it didn’t have value, he didn’t want to do it anymore.

This made very good sense to me and I considered what I knew of him: marriages, businesses, causes, children, travels, awards, degrees, commentary, writing, truth telling—I wondered: what would be next? What has value to a guy who has done it all and finds himself at a juncture where he could do whatever he wanted?

Short stories, he said, looking up from his coffee.

Later that day, in my Chinese lesson, I was shocked to learn that the Chinese word for a novel, is xiao shuo, or small talk—something not serious, my teacher explains.

Not serious?  What do you mean, not serious?  Just try writing one.

Not serious, like a Chairman Mao speech, she answers.

And a short story is called duan pian xiao shuo, or short page novel, she went on. Something even less serious. 短篇小

I have to think about this a minute and decide that though there might be something liberating in this terminology—this purported lack of seriousness investing perhaps a devil-may-care power in the writer; if it doesn’t matter, if it’s all small talk, write it the way you want—no writer would endorse these definitions.

Not me, anyway. And not Bill, I gather. And not, I’d wager, you. For us, writers one and all, it’s a serious undertaking, and with serious and potentially powerful consequences. Further, it’s what we choose to take on when we look to make valuable use of our time.

Small talk? We try very hard to leave that to someone else.

Photo credit: Gabriella Fabbri, sxc

What’s in a Name?

The novelist, film director, and screen writer John Sayles once told me that if he had his way, he’d name all his characters Ed. It’s so short, he said. He had things to say. Why type out a Sebastian or a Giancarlo when you just want to get to it?

Compare this to the experience of a Chinese friend of mine who went back to the mainland to visit family and returned with, of all things, a new name.

The change came through a consultation with Buddhist monks in the temple near her home, and where she has a relative who is a disciple well immersed in these studies.

Many things go into the naming of a Chinese baby—birth date, time, place, family, the fortunes ahead . . . But this was no baby at the feet of the monks but a young woman, married, working, and with babies of her own. The monks, all scholars, considered how she stood in relation to the five elements—water, earth, gold, wood, and fire.


When she left town, her name was Miao written with three signs for water strung together to signify a vast watery expanse.



Too much water, the monks decided. Wood and fire needed.

Dutiful daughter, she deferred to her mother. Attentive mother, she did what was best for her daughter and took the guidance of the monks. Zhenyan, her new name, has the element for wood and a double fire sign.

Some months have passed and I asked her: has her life changed? Yes, she conjectured, but less as a result of a new name than due to the wisdom of the monks who spoke about tolerance and balance and other Buddhist teachings in the course of their conversation. Still, she loves her new name and feels like it ushered in new times, new destiny.

We are writers. We get to choose. We can go the John Sayles route, and just get to the point, or we can deliberate and decide a character’s entire trajectory through a carefully meditated pick. My preference is in the middle: a name that fits like interlaced fingers but which won’t slow me down.

Photo credit: water – Timo Balk, sxc; wood and fire – Alessandro Paiva, sxc

Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream

There is a certain amount of wisdom in this life that filters in from the strangest, least anticipated directions, and even more surprising, ends up informing one’s work. I have come by three writing principles this way, through tributaries that emanated from a single wellspring, a man I met in pre-Tiananmen Beijing: Mr. C. C. Ng.

I had tagged along on my husband’s business trip and C. C. was assigned to be my escort. Fortunately, we got on well, and with nothing but time on our hands, we explored the city together. He hailed taxis, barked addresses, picked the hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops, bargained in the alley, shooed chickens from my ankles, steered an elbow, kept beggars at bay, and all the while doled out cautionary advice, which he apparently thought I was in need of.

It’s a shifty world. Thieves abound. You can be taken. Look there, that basket you want to buy. No good. Bad lid.  And those almonds you eat. Too bitter. Poison inside.

And when at last, wearied and hot, we took refuge on the porch of the hotel, he snapped his fingers at a sleepy waiter, and ordered drinks. No ice, bad for the health!

Avoid the broken.  Avoid the bitter.  Avoid the cold. That’s what it came down to, and his serious, sweet delivery was touching.

Now, some twenty-odd years later, his words still bob like irrepressible corks in the stream, floated a long way now from the source. And what he once spouted as instruction for daily life has evolved now into guiding principles for a writing life—for at this point, there’s very little separation.

He was right—about all of it. Sure enough, that lid never did sit properly. Chew too long on a mighty bitter seed and you certainly will weaken. And, as a New Englander, I can assure you that a person can take only so much cold.

These are words to live by but they are also words to write by. If it’s broken, if it’s bitter, or if it’s cold, it’s not going to make good writing. These things just mess up a life and get in the way of the art.

Photo credits: Chinese dragon – Eva Heinsbroek, sxc; Chinese basket – Andrew Beierle, sxc