Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fiction in Truth ( #Confessions )

By Annabeth Leong

We’ve talked a lot about the truth in fiction, so I want to talk about the fiction in truth.

Interlude: Lisa and Rob

We all used to hang out at an open mike night. Rob was known for his joyful covers of “Brown Eyed Girl.” I sang a cappella versions of my poems. I don’t remember Lisa performing, though she was always there. Mostly, I remember her for handing out pills.

On this particular night, we went back to my place after the open mike ended, probably to smoke (more?) marijuana. But as was often true during that era, I wasn’t very patient with the conversation. Rob, particularly, seemed to be the type who got high and wanted to discuss mind-blowing, half-baked theories about quantum mechanics, and the more he waxed philosophical about The Dancing Wu Li Masters, the more I wished I’d left him out of the invitation.

Lisa saved the day by asking us to do her a favor, something she loved but hadn’t gotten to try in a long time. She wanted us to drip candle wax on her bare back, blow on it until it dried, and then peel it off and blow on it some more. I was down for just about anything that involved people taking their shirts off, so I quickly agreed. Rob was down as well, probably for similar reasons.

Many candles adorned my room, so we had the materials at hand. Lisa stripped down to her bra, and Rob and I took turns going through the wax procedure with her. I remember my fascination with the texture of her skin and the way it reddened in response to the heat. I have a major thing for freckles and moles, and I can still recall one just beside her bra strap and how badly I wanted to touch it. I’ll also never forget her gasps and moans.

After she said she’d had enough, I decided I wanted to try it. I never wore a bra back then, so my torso was entirely bare when I peeled off my shirt. The scald of the wax felt sharp and itchy at first, but as the heat spread over and through my skin, it settled into a squirming warmth that transformed into an erotic sensation. But there was also the matter of the breath. Cool or hot, soft or strong, different depending on whether it came from Lisa or Rob—it landed with an unbearably pleasurable shock each time, on raw, nervy skin stripped of defenses.

Rob tried it, too, though I remember having the sense that he was perhaps not as much of a masochist as Lisa or I, and was largely enduring pain in the interest of having two women touch his back and bring their lips close to it.

We did several rounds of this, and, predictably, the scenario evolved into heavy making out. I remember kissing both of them and playing with Lisa’s breasts. Pants didn’t come off, though I’m not sure why—I’m sure I would have gladly removed mine. At some point, Rob and Lisa went home, and I went to bed.

Oh, and by the way, I had a boyfriend at the time, who would have been extremely unhappy to know what I’d gotten up to.

The next week, I arrived at the open mike to find Rob waiting with one rose for me and one for Lisa. I remember thinking the roses showed a certain sort of naivete. He had no idea, I thought, of who Lisa and I were and what that night had actually meant. I don’t recall if we ever discussed things, but nothing erotic happened again with that particular configuration of people.


So, that story is as true as I can make it. I’m sure I’m representing the events and facts accurately, and I’ve represented my thought process to the best of my ability.

However, whenever I tell a story, I’m aware of all the choices I’m making about what to say when—just as I do when writing fiction.

For example, above, I waited until the end to mention I had a boyfriend who wasn’t present for these events. If I’d mentioned that up top, though, it would have colored the entire story and made it “about” cheating in a way it isn’t if I reveal that fact at the last minute.

I spent paragraphs on the sensual details of the candle wax and glossed over the kissing and conversation. That’s an implicit decision about what constitutes the “important” part of the story.

I also left out the context and back story for my friendship with Lisa, which involved a complex love triangle between me, Lisa, and Lisa’s best friend, not to mention previous ambiguous sexual encounters and a lot of drugs I felt ambivalent about taking. I wonder if that back story and context is part of why I didn’t do more to escalate the situation between me, Lisa, and Rob. In a similar situation with different people, I might have been much more into making a triad out of it, but I already had reasons I felt reluctant about getting more deeply involved with Lisa. If I’d put all that, the story would have been more complicated, but maybe it would also have been more revealing?

There’s also the urge to make some sort of meaning out of the story, another thing familiar from fiction. So what is that story about? Is it about the fucked up things I did back when I used drugs? Is it about my discovery of the kinky uses of candle wax (something I still enjoy in BDSM play)? Is it about a missed opportunity at an interesting three-way relationship? Is it about my willingness to explore sexually? About infidelity? About how Rob maybe deserved better than to make out with someone who didn’t care about his interest in quantum physics? About how Lisa and I really should have talked about what we wanted from each other? About how an open mike is a good place to hook up with kinky people? About how I’ve wised up? Or how I’m still the same?

I could write the story to match all those things and more.

This says a lot about writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Perspective is inescapable. Opinions get infused.

Right now, though, I’m more interested in what it says about life and how I look at myself. I can shift the true stories of my life in all sorts of ways. I could use them to tear myself down for sluttiness and risky behavior. I could use them to portray myself as an interesting, adventurous, experimental person. I’ve done both. And sometimes I wonder if there’s any really “true” way to see it all. It’s a true story, so there are true things about me in it. What those things add up to, though, is complicated, and, to some degree, chosen. I’m a writer, and it seems like I do get to write myself, depending on how I tell this and many other stories.


  1. I think this is a fabulous illustration of the principle, rich with thought-provoking examples.

    I guess telling a story, even a true story, conforms to the same general rules of art that makes a painting, even a realistic painting, look different from reality: the narrator of a story omits irrelevant details ("Oh yeah? You've obviously never met my cousin," I can hear people saying) to give the reader or listener a path through the events, just as a painter uses compositional techniques to focus the eye and avoid clutter (unless it's clutter ex machina, of course).

    I've been reading a lot of vintage mystery novels, and there are frequently conversations between a detective and someone who is relating a series of events, in which the detective asks the witness to "leave nothing out"—but of course that's an impossible order to fill without sounding like Roy Kinnear in Help! ("I am now walking forward. I am moving my left foot... I am moving my right foot...") So the witness will think (s)he's being complete by saying something like, "Then I walked out of my apartment and took the elevator down to the lobby," but the detective will interrupt and ask quetions like, "Wait a second. You say you walked out of your apartment. Did you hear any sounds from around the corner? And how about that elevator ride—did anyone get on at a lower floor?"

    1. (But I understand, of course, that the more interesting issue is the determination of which details are to be included based on what one is interpreting or choosing to make the story "about"—as you so intelligently explore above.)

    2. Glad you got a lot out of the piece, Jeremy! The comparison to painting is absolutely apt, I think. I've always liked looking at drawings or paintings done of people I know to see what features stood out to the artist, and to get a glimpse of how someone else perceives a person who's also in my life.

      I'm not at all bothered by the way you bring up mystery novels. I think that's another good example of how the details that strike one person as important might not seem significant to someone else.

  2. Strikes me that this one scenario could be used in many variations, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Perhaps a collection of different perspectives on a common theme? It's been done to good effect by others, the late, great Jim Harrison for example, in "The Road Home."

    1. I've always loved that sort of experiment! This is a lowbrow example, but I was really fascinated by the anthology "Tales from Jabba's Palace," which tells the intro story of Return of the Jedi from the perspective of the various characters who flash briefly on screen during the movie. It always stayed with me because I was so fascinated by the multiplicity of awareness it represented.

  3. When I commented on Sacchi's post earlier this week, I struggled to explain why I had problems reviewing Wild Girls, Wild Nights. Your post pinpoints the issue. Every story in that book had a narrative structure--beginning, middle, end. Every one had a "point". In contrast, our life experiences doen't have that sort of structure, until we impose it in the retelling. And, as you so skillfully illustrate, there are dozens of possible structures, perspectives and points, all of which can lay some claim to truth.

    For what it's worth, I read your Interlude as a statement about your hunger for sensation, your willingness--no,eagerness--to experiment in the erotic realm. I also see it as being "about" the fact that sex and eroticism, though overlapping and related, are not at all the same thing.

    1. I think this perhaps shows both the appeal and difficulty of true stories. I like the mystery of them, the fascinating experiences that don't have clear endings. I like puzzling over them with friends, turning them about like strange things found on the beach, objects from who knows where, going who knows where. And something gets lost when the story is made too neat, but as writers we're sort of expected to make the story neat…

      I like the way you read my interlude. Feels pretty true to me. :)

  4. As usual, you've brought up good points, Annabeth. If readers know how the relationship of the characters in a sex scene has unfolded, I think this influences how the scene is read. If the past and the future are unclear or unexplained, readers have to focus on the experience of the moment.

    1. Agreed! And I think a lot of that comes back to questions of what the author intends the story to be about.

  5. I think it's hard, if not impossible, for a writer to describe true things without shaping them in some way, unless we don't have time to do any internal editing. Fast, stream of consciousness writing is probably good exercise if we can force ourselves to do it. Okay, I know there are writers who produce wonderful work that way, so I should probably say "If I can force myself" rather than "we."


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