I think it is very hard to be absolutely honest with oneself, especially if words come easily. Before I write, I have to ask myself what I think, and if the answer comes too quickly, I have to stop and ask again — Now, what do I really think.
–Reeve Lindbergh in Forward From Here
Every once in a while, along comes a quote that makes me take a step back. Reading this was one of those “Hey, I’m not the only one” moments.
It’s so easy to go arguing along, laying out the evidence, and find that I’ve followed a tidy path to a conclusion I don’t believe. It’s even tempting sometimes to leave that perfect little argument in place, to let it stand as a monument to its own rhetoric.
But no, I know better. I have to backtrack to figure out what I’ve misstated, and I always find it in the same place–the tidiness. It’s always the same mistake: I’ve allowed myself to be seduced by the elegant simplicity of my own thesis as I build it.
It’s funny, because simple is the one thing no one who knows me will buy. It’s the argument I never get away with. I’m the queen of qualification. I get suspicious when I don’t see contradictions. The one common theme of all of my stories, even the tiny 500-word ones, is “It’s not that simple.” So back I go, to rip my original thesis apart and expose its flaws on the way to saying whatever it is that I really do think.
I sometimes have to do the same with people, particularly people I don’t know well. I’m so used to telling stories about the fictional people in my head that I can slot new people into their own little narratives if I’m not careful. Small behaviors mark larger character traits in fiction, why not in real people?
Because real people are masses of contradictions that would never be tolerated in even the most “literate” of fiction. And because if I tell myself simple stories about the real people in my life, I’m missing out on all the wonderful oddities that appealled to me in these people in the first place. Back I go again, to separate memories of what was actually said and done from the structure I’ve built up to store them in, to reject the story and embrace the messy reality.
It always hurts a little to let the story go, even though I’m much happier when I’m done. In the end, real people are so much more satisfying than imaginary ones.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it again. It’s just so simple to do.