There's something I have to tell you

"Sue, I think we should stop seeing each other for a while"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I don't think we're made for each other"
"So you've been playing me along. You knew from the start"
But this is the start. It's a flashforward, a common enough device replacing surprise by anticipation. The truth is that sometimes things just don't work out. It's no good blaming the characters for a bad story. The onus is on you to start again. Maybe this time you'll base it on Real Life. After all, what better way is there to be believed? And yet so often a story fails because you cling too desperately to the truth. Once you start telling lies who knows where it will end?

So first you transplant other truths; a little hotel you stayed in where the furniture had been handed down to the owner, the walls full of framed bible quotes embroidered in satin. On the mantelpiece a black columned clock with a IIII rather than IV on the face. These details could be symbolic - did the clock shake as you made love? - or they could contribute to the Reality Effect - gratuitous details whose sole purpose is to lend credibility.

Then snippets of dialog are infiltrated - "My grandma lives in sheltered accommodation. At night she can see under her door the corridor light. She thinks she's paying for it and wants to turn it off. But she can't find the key to her door, so she thumps with her hairbrush until the matron arrives"

But will it work? Aside from aesthetic considerations there's also a moral dimension to truth. Is it sufficient merely to change her name? She'll recognise herself, and so will her friends. Is it right or even legal that you enhance your reputation and wealth by repeating words that she thought up? Shouldn't you at least contact her first to ask her permission? But say you did track her down on the internet, what would she think? Would she believe your story? And worse, as you touch-up detail, improving the past, it becomes hard to recall what really happened. Writing the story changes your life.

They say that memory is much like imagination. When we try to remember, we fill in the background and details when it suits us. And sometimes, when the past is too strange or painful, we make up the whole thing. When we imagine, we hunt around until suddenly something clicks. Maybe it's happened before, maybe it hasn't. Sometimes it's hard to tell. Then you have an idea. Because you're striving for honesty, but you also want to write well you decide there's only one thing to do - improve your life until it's good enough to write down verbatim. You forsake writers groups, setting out to meet a contrasting partner - an artist perhaps, or a musician. No, stick with an artist - galleries are good pick-up places. You meet someone at the Cubist retrospective so you can bring in the idea of multiple perspectives. You make the running for the first few weeks then once she sees you're serious she takes over, telling you about her family. Did she tell you about her grandma to warn you of the madness in her family before you got too deep? Or to lead the relationship into greater physical intimacy? You reply by talking about Picasso and Braque, how they felt like 2 mountaineers roped together as they explored. Then you reach the stage where you exchange childhood memories - "I remember on holiday once my parents took me on a trip to see some ruins. All the time I moaned about wanting a blow-up boat for the beach. On our way back to the caravan that night my father stopped at a seaside shop and bought one. All night I worried that I'd drift away in it. So over breakfast I asked for rope. And then my mother shouted at me, saying that I was never satisfied. You see, I was insecure even then". You have nothing to offer in return because you don't want to make things up. A shame, because the rope image deserves to be continued. Maybe an allusion to bondage might liven things up.

The story develops, flashbacks alternating with exegesis, but the readers already know how it will end. Authorial control's an analogue for fatalism. If this piece is an illustrated essay then no doubt there will be a tidy conclusion and some helpful hints. But maybe it's a reflective story with an inconclusive ending just like real life. Life's lived forwards and understood backwards, making the ending a turning point, one of those moments of discovery. How did it all begin? Perhaps it was love at first sight - a face you saw reflected in a train window becoming the embodiment of your longing to travel. Or maybe you heard the start of an anecdote as you passed a public phone on the way to the toilet at an Isle of Wight fish restaurant. You lingered, curious to know how things worked out, whether you could make a story from it.

Well at least you tried. Rejection's something you must live with. You shouldn't always blame yourself. There are 2 sides to every story. Yet still you wonder, should you have asked for the drawing she made of you, or should you be glad she wanted to keep it? For whose benefit is realism? You convince yourself that you have to tell the truth because the reader will see through your lies, but isn't it really for your own benefit, some kind of cleansing of the soul? Why shouldn't you both live happily ever after? Perhaps next time you will.


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Updated in January, 2002
tpl@eng.cam.ac.uk