The other day I went to see the movie Infamous. Like last year's Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar, the film is about Truman Capote and how he got to write his landmark book, In Cold Blood.
What's interesting to me is that it is very much a film about writers. True, it's also one man's obsession with his story and subjects, but so much truth is about a writer's life, and as a writer, I so identify with a lot of what's being said.
For example, Nelle Harper Lee (wonderfully underplayed by Sandra Bullock) said, "When writers write, they give up a piece of themselves. They die a little." She was, of course, alluding to Capote and how his spirit died along with the five years he took to write In Cold Blood, especially after the execution of Perry Smith. Deeper still, I think she said the ultimate truth about artists.
In truth, we are creators -- we create stories and thoughts and characters through our imagination. But think about it: we have to give up something to create something else. Things don't just appear out of thin air, and I am not talking about paper and ink. Even when the readers don't realize it, writers do put a lot of themselves into the stories they write, and it's a draining experience for many, and it takes a lot out of a writer. It is especially true when someone is not writing something purely for commercial gain or to entertain, but something out of their own existence and experiences to enlighten the world.
I'm not talking about memoirs or autobiographies only, but certainly they're some of the most gut-wrenching, soul-baring experiences a writer could ever endure. But even for non-biographical fiction, in truth a writer does pour a lot of her soul in her work, and in turn, she's given up a piece of herself to create this "thing" for others to consume. Once she opens the vein, there's no turning back.
So a writer has a dilemma. I think fiction writers sometimes try to have their cakes and eat them, too. When attacked by Truman Capote about making things up in To Kill a Mockingbird even though the book was based on her life, Harper Lee shouted, "That's why I called it FICTION." Non-fiction writer has a moral obligation to tell the facts, or to at least present their versions of such. Fiction writers, on the other hand, want to tell the truth but they, for some reason, tend to want to hide behind the veil of "make believe." Because it feels safer. They can call it imagination, fantasy, when in fact, these stories may be closer to their own existential core than we could ever imagine. We all say "fiction writers lie to tell the truth." And that itself is a truth.
So we have a dilemma. Do we cut open our veins and let the world know all that is to know about us? Or do we keep on playing charades, pretending that none of it matters to us personally? Fiction writers tend to be very well guarded about their personal lives, while memoir writers such as Augusten Burroughs, Frank McCourt and David Sedaris open their chests and bleed all over.
One doesn't necessarily take more courage than the other, but once you go down one path, it's not easy to take it all back. You either lied, or you didn't. There is no such thing as half truth.
So, what do you choose? Where do you go?