Tag Archives: craft

Chadwick

2014_09_24_19_31_28

Chadwick

By Jay Duret

Every so often these pages feature advice and words of encouragement for writers. This is my contribution.

I will change the identifiers so as not to cause embarrassment, but this story is true.

Last year I received a note from a journal about a story I had submitted. The note said:

Jay

Thank you for giving us the chance to read your work.

Unfortunately, we do not feel this piece is a good fit for the Squamish Review. This does not necessarily reflect the quality of your work, but, more so, the large number of submissions we have received.

Thanks again. Good luck with this elsewhere.

Milton Q. Chadwick,
Fiction Editor

I gave the note the same attention I give to all communications from editors who  have considered my writing: I read Milton Chadwick’s email with the greatest care. I weighed every word, every syllable. I read between the lines, over and under the lines. All to see what he was really communicating about my story. Fine, he wasn’t going to use it, but what else? Was Mr. Chadwick saying no go this time but we loved the work, please submit again soon? Was he saying Jay, you are funny as hell but sadly our journal is condemned to publishing prose as dry as burnt toast and so it just isn’t going to happen here, with my blessings submit it elsewhere ASAP and I’ll give you a letter of reference?

Apparently not.

I read the note three or four times to see if I could mine any bit of encouragement. At first I took some heart from the sentence that said the decision did not reflect the quality of my work. But when I gave it a closer read I had to confront the word “necessarily”. The letter said the rejection did not necessarily reflect the work’s quality, which I suppose was Chadwick’s way of saying that some things that he rejects are by good writers, but his note to me, fairly read, contained no suggestion that I was in fact one of them. Indeed, the more I parsed the wording, the more it seemed like I had a received a flat out form rejection letter, the one sent to rejectees who were of no interest to stone-hearted, small-minded, Chadwick. Ugh.

I hate a rejection letter that ugly, but I didn’t let it get me down. I have had worse rejections. And even if the piece I submitted was vibrant and strong, I understood that it is hard to get a spot in a journal of quality. There are themes and page constraints and inherent biases all to contend with. I wasn’t going to get angry over the rejection.

What a lie! Of course I was going to get angry! What else would I do? Obviously I had been the victim of Chadwick! A nasty, nasty editor, probably sleeping with the writer whose work he choose over mine!! Damn him! Damn them both!! I would never stoop so low. Those wretched wretches. Damn them.

My anger did not last long though. After all, there were so many other things to get angry at, so many more editors to curse. But when another email arrived from Milton Chadwick, my anger returned twice as fiercely. I didn’t even need to read Chadwick’s post to realize that that the bum had decided to reject my story twice! He was such moron that he did not know that he had already rejected it. Oh, what a dingus!

I began to compose my response. You can’t write to protest when an editor rejects your work. All the knowledgeable people say that. But if you have the same piece rejected twice by the same editor you surely are allowed to bring that fact to the attention of the cretin. And I was just the guy to do it. I was going to enjoy this. I was going to make sure that he knew how it feels to pour heart and soul into a work of creative genius only to have your offering stomped on by a heartless bastard like Chadwick. Oh you miserable soulless beast! You, you…Chadwick!

I started to write and it was great. I was on fire! Oh I would not want to be Chadwick when he opened my email, when he read my smoldering prose. I was just ready to press send when it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure how to spell Squamish – really? they named their journal the Squamish Review? – so I opened Chadwick’s latest email to find the spelling and this is what I read:

Dear Jay

Don’t know what happened, but as you know, we accidentally sent you a rejection note intended for someone else. The truth is we loved the story and would like to publish it in the October issue of Squamish Review, if it is still available.

Sorry about the mistake.

Thanks,

Milton Q. Chadwick
Fiction Editor

I know there is a moral here. Probably it is not to give up hope. But frankly the one that I have extracted is that before writing an angry email to Chadwick, read his email first, cause he is a prince among men…

***
Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer and illustrator. His novel, Nine Digits, published by Second Wind Publishing, will be available later this year. See www.ninedigits.com. Jay welcomes feedback at jayduret@yahoo.com. 

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Arc of Truth

Jay DuretBy Jay Duret

 

I am a liar.

I write fiction, that’s the job description.

I am fine with the undeniable fact that I will go to my grave as a liar, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues squirm under the label. They don’t want to lie for a living; they get queasy when describing what they write as “fiction”, the very word a declaration of mendaciousness. They believe, as I do, that lying can be a way to truth, sometimes the only way. But they want that idea to be more than just a line in a graduate student’s paper or an aphorism attributed to Hemingway. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.”)

Because we live in an age where each of us can create our own narrative, some writers have cast off from the fiction pier and are floating into waters closer to the shore that has been called, forever, by the bad name “non-fiction”. The problem is, despite its bad label, non-fiction is a real thing. There is an underlying school of craft – we call it journalism – that has rules and boundaries. A fiction writer can’t simply declare that he or she has landed on the shores of non-fiction and proceed to take up shop there; doing that would subject the writer to the rules and regulations governing the craft of non-fiction, a weighty commitment, particularly for those who love fiction precisely for the freedom it offers from overbearing regulation.

But that doesn’t end the matter. For those floating in the waters between fiction and non-fiction, new possibilities are arising, and I do not mean Creative Non Fiction. CNF, according to Lee Gutkind editor of the magazine Creative Non-Fiction, is subject to the same rules of reporting that govern journalism. The “creative” in CNF does not mean creating facts; it means telling the story with some of the tools of fiction – pacing, suspense, flashbacks, etc. A good piece of CNF is no less required to be grounded in actuality than a piece of straight up reporting. As Gutkind puts it:

“Creative” doesn’t mean … that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

When writers ignore Gutkind’s maxim, disaster can follow. Truth in labeling is the way of American commerce, why should it be different in writing than in, say, soup packaging? I like this quote about the writer of A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club Selection that became a best seller before The Smoking Gun outed the book’s many fabrications:

James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem[1].

No, calling fiction CNF will not solve the writer’s dilemma. Fortunately in this, as in so many things, writers can borrow from another art form: movies. With the bigger budgets and the legions of people involved in making a movie – they have producers, best boys, gaffers! They have lawyers on the creative team! – no wonder motion pictures have fished these waters better than solitary writers tapping their keyboards in lonely scows and leaky rowboats. The movie industry has created a finely gauged explanation of the territory between fiction and non-fiction and that can serve as an excellent guide for writers.

The foundation of movies – perhaps other than documentaries – is to have  extremely good looking actors and actresses pleasingly stand in for the sad sacks whose stories are being related (All the President’s Men – I mean, really, Robert Redford is a beat reporter?). Given that foundation, it is hard to say that any movie is actually “true” – but a movie will frequently self identify as A True Story. That’s a wonderful phrase and frankly might be just the perfect oxymoron to serve any writer in need of a forgiving description of their work. Yet if the body of CNF proves anything, it is that non-fiction can be told as a story and therefore A True Story may not be quite as oxymoronic as one might have supposed. No, further nuance is needed.

Based on a True Story – here is a category that gives a writer some freedom! Nothing in it says that lying is involved – the writer is telling truth! – it is just that the truth the writer is telling is devolved from an underlying truth;  it is an expression of that truth, just not exactly the literal truth that might be found in the Palace of Truth and Justice. True, but not true in the pedestrian sense a member of the public might have otherwise expected. Understood properly, BTS is a branch of metaphysics.

So much of fiction is BTS that the category – by itself – solves the problem for most writers. But for writers that paddle even further from the banks of non-fiction, the movie industry offers an even more flexible concept: Inspired by a True Story. This one is a winner. Short of flat out fantasy, what fiction doesn’t fall under the category of ITS? And how could any reader complain if that little bit of disclosure were to be appended to the description of a book marketed as fiction? How could the writer be called out? As far as I can see, the best approach for one bent on attacking the description would be to say that a dreary work was not inspired. That would seem easier to prove in a court of law or public opinion than the proposition that somewhere – anywhere – there wasn’t some true story that the writer’s tale sprang from. Yes, Inspired By A True Story does the job: it will lend almost any piece of fiction a fine patina of truthfulness.

As good as ITS is, it doesn’t quite work for me. I write many stories that are all or mostly dialogue. I have come to believe – for better or worse – that you can tell the reader all they need to know about the characters by what they say and they way they say it. Many of my stories have come to me by eavesdropping – one of those things, like lying, that are essential parts of a fiction writer’s trade. Often I will hear a conversation and later on, after I have played it through in my head a dozen times, I will put it down on paper and find that I have a story that – at least to my own taste – is of interest.

Yet this is where I run into trouble. An editor will read my piece and ask if I am submitting the story as Fiction or Non Fiction or CNF. (Indeed, Submittable usually requires a commitment to one of those categories right from the start.) I could cover myself with a judicious use of the key phrase Inspired By A True Story but that disclosure – broad as it may be – needs some adaptation to apply to my type of writing. For when you start with an eavesdropped conversation, you never know whether the event that is being discussed is actually true or not. You may have happened upon two bullshitters – whose conversation you may be reporting truthfully – but there is no true story beneath it. I needed a way to capture that nuance.

At first I tried to explain it – but many of my editors did not possess the forgiving span of attention that the nuance inherent in this thing requires. And then I had an inspiration. Why not handle it with a picture, a diagram, an illustration? That would save me explaining the details to editors too busy  to focus. And that is how I came to memorialize the Arc of Truth.

I am not much of an illustrator but I like the way the arrow on the dial moves between black and white with shades of grey in between. Not fifty of them, alas, but enough for these purposes:

Arc of Truth3

 

***

Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer who blogs at www.jayduret.com. His first novel, Nine Digits, will be published by Second Wind Publishing this year. Visit the website: www.ninedigits.com. Jay welcomes feedback at jayduret@yahoo.com. Read his prior posts on the Second Wind blog:

Nom De Plume

Nom De Plume

Bridalplasty

Bridalplasty

Queen For A Day

Queen For A Day

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs (retrieved July 23, 2014).

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