Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Ugly (and Captivating) Truth

post by Jennifer Carter

I am nearing the end of my training course in medical transcription, the second half of which has been typing actual medical reports of all different kinds--MRI findings, surgery, psychiatric, emergency, obstetrics, etc. And I will be the first to admit, my stomach is not as strong as it used to be. Growing up on a farm you get used to a certain level of raw nature, but I have never really translated that to the human body, I guess. Some reports, particularly surgical reports, just flat out give me the willies.

As I was typing my first surgery report, I thought to myself--how am I going to do this on a regular basis? It was like being forced to watch the gory stuff on TV that I usually look away from, but instead of just watching it I had to record every single detail. But as I did a few more, something surprising happened--I started to get used to it. And not only that, it started to sound more interesting than horrifying. I even toyed with the idea of applying to med school at age 33 (I'm over that though).

It occurred to me last night that while these doctors are required to record in detail everything they have done to any patient, the same should be required of writers. I think this applies to both fiction and nonfiction. As an example, when I submitted my short story to my critique group, one of the members of my group (thank you, Lynn) called me out. My main character offhandedly mentions that a certain boy had 'held her attention for longer than she cared to think about.' Really? Held her attention? And I realized she was right. I was holding back the truth that I--er--she was devastatingly in love with him, which is way different than simply holding one's attention.

It's hard to be that honest when I'm writing, but I know that I don't enjoy reading fiction or nonfiction that isn't brutally honest. And it's not very hard to tell either, when an author has held back, distanced himself or herself from the story and therefore has left it hollow. And it can be so touchy to write about so many things, like sex and close relationships with friends, siblings, spouses, lovers. But when I do find something unflinching in its honesty, I want to read more.

I'm sure that not all writing has to be quite as relentlessly graphic as a surgical report, but as I revise my draft (any draft) I am going to have that philosophy in mind. Who knows, maybe I should get a tape recorder and dictate my characters' psychiatric reports so I can accurately convey their true mental and emotional status throughout the book. Plus if anything untimely should happen to one of my characters, I could cover their emergency room visit too!

What have you found to be the most challenging when it comes to 'telling the truth' in writing, fiction or nonfiction?


Jenny S. said...

Wow...what a way to get authenticity in your writing! Now I'm imagining how to describe a splenectomy or something like that. (Do you remember the Chevy Chase movie 'Fletch'? "Ever seen a spleen like that?" "Not since breakfast.")

I don't particularly like reading graphic descriptions of seamy business, which means I sometimes pull punches with my writing. There's got to be a happy medium there somewhere :-)

Kerrie said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. The biggest challenge is not going deep enough with the writing, especially with sensitive topics. The problem is that when we as authors skirt around certain issues and topics, the reader is left with a glaring hole in the story.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Sex -- I tried writing a sex scene for an old romantic suspense manuscript and, honestly, it's just plain stupid. I decided I'd best stick to murder. :)

Name: Luana Krause said...

For me, the truth is difficult to write because you have to make yourself vulnerable. At least in stories that involve intense psychological subjects (abuse, etc.) One of my favorite Stephen King stories is Rose Madder. It was about a woman who was abused by her husband and how she escaped. There was truth in the writing. And while the author himself never experienced that particular situation in life, he understood the terror and showed it perfectly.

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