Tuesday, January 12

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 16 comments
As I've indicated before, I'm not prone to write autobiographical work, and not because my life has been boring. Far from it. Rather, I see certain difficulties in working directly with the material of my lived experiences. In an ongoing series (though not likely to be sequential, based on my track record), I'd like to address some of those difficulties as I see them.

Verism vs. verisimilitude
(Can you tell I've been having fun with the dictionary today?)

One of the core pitfalls of autobiographical writing is feeling tethered to the sequence of events as they actually happened. I've done a critique for a friend who has the makings of an excellent children's book, but a few stanzas have her in knots because she insists on clinging to details that are important only to her. They add nothing to the story, don't fit her meter or rhyme and have only kept her stuck, stuck, stuck. I'm not sure how to help her, other than point out that she seems to equate fictionalizing with lying. Her conscience feels keenly there is something deeply unethical about making things up.

I'd call this impulse verism, ("truth theory") from the term applied to a period of "warts and all" art in late republican Rome. It is, if anything, an ethical stance that the armchair psychologist in me sees most often in Meyers-Briggs sensing temperaments. You know, the folks who are rooted to the here and now, and tend to choose careers in math and science. Sensing types are deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of untruth.

Verism's biggest flaw, however, is that it insists on minutiae that obscure rather than clarify the truth. Because to tell your story true in a way that reflects its real meaning and depicts the core emotions, you have to eliminate a lot of what really happened. Real life is messier, more complicated and more cluttered with unnecessary details than quality fiction. Recreating Grandma's parlor in loving detail might give the readers a slice of the real, but unless those details add up to something important to the story, you've lead your readers further from the truth. They'll feel either cheated or bored with your self indulgence.

Instead, one should strive for verisimilitude--the appearance of truth. Achieving this requires winnowing away all but the shiniest thread of narrative, all but the most representative of incidents, all but the most telling of details. Some engineering and editing and fabrication will be necessary to make that happen. Of course, it takes a certain amount of distance and perspective to do this. I'll take up that topic later in the series.

Keats's famous line "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn," l. 49) is a pretty convincing argument to get past the fearful clinging to "but this is what really happened." Remember as well that Jesus's most powerfully truthful teaching was parables--fictional stories like the sower, the prodigal son, the ten bridesmaids. The parables clarified his message and made truth so sharp it could penetrate his listeners' usual defenses. The best fiction acts in the same manner.

Have you struggled with verism? What helped you overcome it?


  1. What a fantastic post! I think we all struggle with fictionalizing real events, places, or people and moving past what 'really' happened. Although, I tend to have the opposite problem when I verbally tell a story: embellishing what really happened so it sounds a bit more exciting when I tell it! haha. Hmm, what does that mean?

  2. This is a wonderful subject to post about! I don't struggle with truth, I make everything up! But I think my true life experiences trickle in here and there, even when I don't want them to.

    I love Keats. What a great quote!

  3. Wow. This is a wonderful post, Laurel - original and very valuable (and, um, very intellectual!). The truth does tend to ooze its way into what I write - I'm still working on the distance and perspective thing. I look forward to your follow-up posts. :)

  4. I never really thought about it in these terms before, but you are absolutely right.

    In my current wip (hitler youth story), I'm borrowing true events from several people I know (and some I just read about) who lived through it, mixing all their 'things that actually happened' stories together to come up with one fictional one. I suppose that's a form of verisimilitude.

  5. Hi Melissa, and welcome! I think your embellishing tendency says you are a storyteller at heart, rather than a "just the facts, ma'am" kind of gal.

    Aubrie: Hello, and thanks for the follow. I'm with you in generally prefering to stick to fictional scenarios that are merely influenced by my lived experiences.

    Shannon: Oh, dear. I do sound dreadfully egg-headed today. Sorry. I have been copy editing like a madwoman at work to meet a Feb 1 deadline; the $10 words are commonplace in what I've been reading and it's seriously messing with my mind. Proletariat fiction anyone? Postcolonialism? The anxiety of influence? Surrealism?

  6. My "Unerasable" story succumbed to verism, as you know. My job in revising is to focus on the core story, and make it true.

    We'll see how I handle these things going forward, but I'm hoping I learned my lesson... :)

  7. Elle: Your WIP concept sounds very intriguing! I think it's easier to write someone else's true story without getting mired in unnecessary detail because you don't have the same level of emotional entanglement with the experience as the person who lived it.

    Simon: I have no doubt Unerasable will be exceptional. You can do it!

  8. I have completely struggled with verism. Some of the messier components of my novel are based in the truth of it all -- like, my main character transferring schools twice and attending three different colleges. Messy, but I've tried to use it to my advantage. I get to describe the differences of each campus, and bring in new characters. I don't know if I'll keep it -- maybe my main character, though based on me, will only go to two colleges... or maybe she won't finish college... or maybe she...

    hmm. I don't know. I would have to make something up. :)

  9. Wow Laurel. Super post. I am not going to write autobiography any time soon, but this post has helped me in many other ways with some writing issues I have been struggling with. Thanks so much Laurel. :0)

  10. Amber: Like Simon said, it's a good idea to figure out what the character arc will be, then include only those incidents that will get you there. Good luck!

    Thanks, Robyn. I think I know what you mean--I'm still learning how to do that winnowing I mentioned. I got a crit on some chapters over the weekend that nailed me on failing to do just that.

    I can pontificate with the best of 'em, but I surely have not arrived by any stretch. Craft is a loooong learning process, and we're all in this together!

  11. I ran into this very problem when I tried to write a story about my summer in Spain. My brain kept forcing me to write it in sequence, the way it really happened. The story sucked even though what happened was amazing and wonderful. I still haven't been able to give that story life.

  12. Sherrie: thanks for stopping by. You might be able to come back to those experiences and write them true later in life. I'm planning to address distance and perspective in a future post. Stay tuned!

  13. I've never thought about this before!!! I would have to say that I don't have a problem with the truth since I write fiction and make everything up! lol

    Thanks for sharing some of your critiquing woes on my blog today! It helps to here others go through the same thing, you know? ;)

  14. This is a great post! I don't write autobiographical stuff, so it's not so much the problem of telling the truth vs. fictionalizing for me. But, I do struggle with telling the reader things he/she doesn't need to know. I feel this void if I don't explain how the characters get from point A to point B, even though what happens between point A and point B is really not important. What I always tell myself is that readers are smart people. They can fill in the blanks. As far as with autobiographical writing, I'd think some fictionalizing would be crucial.

  15. I don't usually write autobiographical stuff (except on my blog occasionally), but I do find that I cling to details that are only important to me. It's so freeing once you finally realize that just because you know something happens doesn't mean it has to be in the book you're writing to make the story good.

  16. Sherrinda: thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to hear my story helped lift your spirits.

    Susan: I'm right there with you. I struggle with winnowing away unnecessary details in even completely fabricated scenarios. This post was a, "hey, self, remember and work at this" as much as anything.

    Candice: I know what you mean. I can be totally compulsive in getting caught up in the wrong details. It's freeing to know that I don't have to account for every little thing my characters do between one scene and the next, and that I have ultimate control over what is shown and what isn't.