Monday, September 24, 2012

Storytelling Engines: True Story, Swear To God

(or "And Then You Threw A Squid At My Window")

When it comes to finding ideas for an ongoing series, sooner or later just about everyone comes up with the same idea: Why not just talk about myself? After all, the reasoning goes, I can never run out of stories as long as I live if I just write a sort of semi-fictionalized diary about my life and the lives of the people around me. Day-to-day living will provide endless inspiration, neatly circumventing the difficulties that writers who make stuff up for a living have to deal with. It sounds almost too good to be true...but by definition, it is true!

And for certain values of "true", it is. When you're writing an essentially autobiographical series, like Tom Beland's "True Story, Swear to God" (or Jennie Breeden's "The Devil's Panties" or Harvey Pekar's "American Splendour", to name a couple of other examples) you do have a constant source of inspiration in your day-to-day life. You really can't get writer's block, because autobiographical writing shares as much with journalism as it does with fiction. (Although it should be noted that there is always an element of fictionalization, no matter how honest you're being with yourself. You're selecting which incidents to report, which details to recall, and even the best memory is anything but perfect. Short of wearing a helmet-cam everywhere you go, you can't possibly get it perfectly real.)

That said, there are plenty of pitfalls specific to the autobiographical form...ones that in some way explain why most writers find it easier to make stuff up. First, you're constantly sharing your life with the reading audience. That requires a lot of unflinching honesty about yourself, because while we all like to think that we're charming, funny, honest, upstanding, decent paragons of virtue that are also dead sexy to boot, we sometimes aren't. Sometimes we do things that we really wish we hadn't, and the temptation to erase those less-than-flattering details can be enormous. For that matter, sometimes being absolutely honest about ourselves shows people something they'd just as soon not read about. Not everyone, I suspect, wanted to keep reading TSSTG after reading about Tom, fresh off a promise to a skittish Lily that he wouldn't hold his decision to move against her, complaining for a full issue about all the hardships he was going through because of his decision to move just for her.

And even if you do feel like you can be that honest about yourself, you have to ask whether you can be that honest about everyone around you. Your real-life friends and loved ones might not take so easily to their private conversations being reduced to grist for the fictional mill, and you have to take into account their reaction when you're writing. Balancing the committment to your audience with the committment to your family is not easy; the last thing you want is to have to write "Issue Three: In Which My Wife and I Fight About the Way I Wrote the Fight in Issue One."

Assuming you do have the skill to write yourself honestly and sympathetically, and assuming you have the skill to do the same for your family (or, alternatively, the skill to convince them that it's okay to write them as jerks) you run into the next big obstacle. Is your life interesting? Certainly, we all assume that our lives are exciting, terrifying, hilarious, and filled with larger-than-life passion. It feels that way to us. But the life of a cartoonist is filled with hours of sitting in front of a desk drawing. Once the whirlwind romance of meeting a woman and moving to Puerto Rico to be with her is over, how much of your story is going to be "And then we made dinner! And then we snuggled up and watched a movie! And then we went to bed!"? It's something you have to weigh when you start in on an auto-biographical comic.

Everyone's got a story to tell about themselves, they say. And for certain values of "true", that's absolutely true. But when you really look at how hard it is to describe your own life, in terms that are honest and engaging...you begin to understand why some writers are tempted to just make stuff up.

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