On Note-Takers and Meaning-Makers

Want to know a funny thing about real life? If you try to transcribe it, it doesn’t feel real at all.

You’ve probably done this exercise: sit in a coffee shop, or at a bus stop, or anywhere people might linger and converse, and copy down what you hear. If you’re a speedy note-taker, maybe you can keep up with what’s being said. Even if you miss chunks of it, though, that’s okay. Take what you can get. Try to put it in a story.

It will, in all likelihood, be terrible.

And we’ve read that story in workshop—that names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-innocent account of real people and real events—and remarked, “This doesn’t seem realistic.”

“But that’s how it really happened!” the writer will protest. And that’s great—or terrible, depending on the story—but not relevant to the success or failure of a story.

Our readers don’t care if it’s real. They care if it feels real, which is altogether a different matter.

Perception of reality is a tricky, slippery creature to approach. Think, for instance, of the placebo effect, sham medicine’s saving grace. If I take a group of people suffering from chronic headaches and give them a pill bottle of Smarties and directions to take two daily, some of them will almost certainly see improvement. What’s more, some of them will report negative side effects—insomnia, constipation, loss of appetite, etc. What’s more more, if I tell them to stop taking the Smarties all at once, some of them will experience withdrawal symptoms.

These are tablets composed of dextrose, citric acid, calcium stearate, and the reassuringly vague “natural and artificial” flavors and colors. Barring some allergic reaction, their impact on the body should amount to a brief sweet sensation and increased salivation. But we can trick the human body into doing all sorts of seemingly implausible things with the simple act of offering something that feels authentic, whether or not it’s real.

In that sense, readers are a little like the third-grader with the persistent stomachache who just needs to be offered a tablet and a promise that it will make everything better. Why else would we roll our eyes at the hero who just happens to walk in on the crisis at the perfect moment, even though we’ve all had that experience of being in just the right place at just the right time … and yet be moved to tears by the passing of Wilbur’s arachnid companion, Charlotte, even though our interactions with spiders usually take the form of either crushing them or humanely relocating them out the window?

Authenticity isn’t a product of having done the research, of knowing the facts. Research and facts can help, of course—if you write about the sweet, floral scent of the sea and the melodic chirping of seagulls as your character walks along a volcanic coast in Florida, your reader may be distracted by disbelief—but there’s a reason most people don’t typically read textbooks for fun. Information, real as it may be, is not authentic. Instead, authenticity is a product of the human element, the interpretive element, the cognitive computer that takes raw data and processes it into something meaningful.

A mentor of mine once said, regarding writers, “We’re not note-takers. We’re meaning-makers.”

This is what makes the decree of write what you know so misleading. We mistake factual knowledge for meaningful knowledge, and we write stories about a fictionalized version of ourselves going through a fictionalized version of our life. That can work—don’t get me wrong—but its success doesn’t lie in the fact that we know the name of our town’s best pizza joint or the most direct way to get from Main Street to the hospital. Its success comes from the way we capture a character’s experience eating a really great slice of pizza, in Detroit or Moscow or Iowa City, or the way a character feels when her own most direct route to the hospital still seems to be taking too long.

In writing, we have free license to fabricate data to an extent that even purveyors of sham medicine can’t match. Meaning, though, can’t be faked or forced. It is, by nature, authentic.

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