I took the title of this blog from a Paloma Faith song. It’s about a woman in a relationship who hides her true self out of fear of being rejected. When I first heard the song, the title so resonated in me that I found it applies to pretty much every aspect of life. When it comes to writing, I find this question determines whether a work is considered literary or fluff. The grittier and more depressing a story is, the more it is hailed as brilliant and important. But when I finish a relentlessly sad book, not only do I have to convince myself that life is worth living, I also never read the book again.
Now this isn’t because I have some Pollyanna world view. Despite being raised by my biological, emotionally available, married-before-I-was-conceived parents, I know firsthand that most people are looking out for themselves and don’t mind wrecking your life in the process. They will use whatever blunt instrument is handy to demean, degrade and undermine you out of existence. That is the truth and if you don’t get hip, you will be chewed up and spit out before anyone even knows you’re here. But I’ve also seen kindness, heroism, generosity and love shown without a demand for anything in return. Those people may be few and far between, but to act as if they don’t exist is to deny the truth.
The same goes with storytelling. When you read a book or watch a movie, your subconscious turns on what I call the Tripe-O-Meter. If the character’s emotional response mirrors real life, our Tripe-O-Meter stays at zero. But when the character accepts an intolerable situation without explanation or acknowledgment, the Meter gets to rumbling. If the good guy treats his friends like dirt and never gets called out, there goes the Meter. When we’re told by every character that the basic girl is ‘amazing and unusual’, we call Tripe. You may not detect the Meter going off—it might be the feeling that something didn’t sit right. You wonder what bothered you
about the story, why it rang hollow. At the same time, we crack up watching movies that revel in being downright stupid without setting off the Meter. And when we get to the heart of why we enjoyed something so inane, we find the story is teeming with truth. No matter how juvenile it might be, the characters are honest with themselves and are quickly called out when they’re not. Our Tripe-O-Meter is happy because the story spoke truth.
But what about the genuinely terrible things that happen around the world? I don’t believe anyone should blind themselves to the world’s problems, least of all us writers. Drugs and human trafficking are not only real, but take place in our own backyard no matter what neighborhood we live in. Torture and domestic violence are just as true as rainbows and altruism, so where is the balance? Can we get the truth and something beautiful?
When it comes to writing, a story should acknowledge that suffering exists in the world. But if we focus solely on suffering, we don’t tell the truth. If we get a parade of problems and no solutions, we don’t have the whole story. Aspirational writing isn’t a band-aid of ‘cheer up things’ll get better if you just sing a song.’ It’s about providing a road map of how someone overcomes a miserable situation, which is speaking truth because in real life, countless numbers of people have done just that. Still, this doesn’t mean every story should have a happy ending.
One of my favorite endings is West Side Story. If you’ve never seen it, skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers…I’ll wait…okay you’ve been warned. West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet, and in a lot of ways I find it a big improvement on the original. Shakespeare may have been more eloquent, but R&J’s tragic end was completely avoidable. The friar’s message is conveniently delayed, and Juliet conveniently doesn’t wake up until right after Romeo dies (although I did like what Baz Luhrmann did to that scene in his version). Despite my everlasting love for Shakespeare, the simplistic events that lead to R&J’s dying read about 5.0 on my Tripe-O-Meter.
On the other hand, West Side Story is much more tragic because Tony is murdered. And instead of killing herself, Maria condemns the hatred and lack of self-control that led to her double bereavement. All seems lost until the Jets pick up Tony’s body. They waver under his weight, but members of the Sharks go to help them. There’s a moment of tension, but in that moment the impact of what has happened sinks in on everyone. The gangs unite to become Tony’s pallbearers, his death being brutally ironic since he was the one person who wanted nothing to do with fighting. The lesson is obvious, and the act of rivals uniting is proof the characters have learned this lesson. Not only are we told the truth, we are shown how to overcome destructive thinking.
No writer should avoid the truth if they want the story to be any good. Pain, heartache and loss are out there and no one will be spared. But if we tell the truth, we need to tell the whole truth—warts and rainbows and all.