Monday, March 19, 2012

Photoshopping Non-Fiction

A few weeks ago a magazine showed up in my mailbox with a cover story on actors with Downs Syndrome. I knew the shows they all were on, so I quickly flipped to the article. In the two-page photo spread three beautiful actors sat around a table. I didn't recognize one of them.

I puzzled over them a while, then flipped through the rest of the article to see who these imposters were... and realized they were the same actors I knew... just.... photoshopped. So much so, they didn't even resemble the people in the TV shows – the people they really are.

Photoshopping is so common in media now, we should all look at photographs with a wary eye. There is a great visual reminder of this on called 15 Photoshopped Transformations of Celebrities and Models.

If it seems actors don't seem to age, maybe it's not great genes, or even great make-up. Maybe it's airbrushing.

If you don't recognize a model when she's walking down a runway, maybe it's because the post-process editing has changed her bone structure and the shape of her head, and eyes, and nose, and mouth.

When, a few years ago, my mom was creating a scrapbook and debating about whether or not to include a picture of a work party that had an unwelcome person in the background, I told her, "Clone her out." And so we did. History rewritten.

When I take pictures of my children and they have food on their cheeks or a bad patch of acne, I've been known on occasion to airbrush it out. History rewritten. (And before you get on a high horse about documenting our kids' lives accurately, how many of you would rather your teenage years be documented with acne rather than without?)

We can't trust pictures.

But we are still trusting of journalism, of the written or spoken word that shows up somewhere with the implication of fact. 

It's a point of discussion in my school, where the term "creative non-fiction" is debated with high energy. History seems to be like taffy now, where it can be pulled and stretched and twisted and pressed together in new ways, the color and texture of it changed into something else entirely while the creator screams, "But it's all the same ingredients!"

For "artistic purposes." Right? Or, as Mike Daisey calls it, Dramatic License.

I listened this morning to the uproar over Daisey and NPR. If you haven't heard about it, here is a good article on the situation. In short, Mike Daisey is performing a one-man theater show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In it, he details appalling working conditions in the China Apple plant. A segment of this went on NPR, and the Apple name and reputation came under fire. 

Only now, it seems, none of that information on the deplorable conditions of the China plant was true. It was done for "dramatic purposes." And Daisey has no problem with this. “What I do is not journalism,” he said. “The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism."

True. And yet... 

it still feels awfully wrong. 

Like photoshopping pictures of celebrities to make them more appealing, are we also photoshopping the truth to make it more interesting?

It's not just that this fictional theatre presentation was aired on a news station as if it was true, it's that, even in the quiet dark of the fictional world of the auditorium, people will believe it's true because there is enough fact mixed in to make it seem that way. Here is a guy, telling his own story, with true facts that you know to be true about people and about Apple, and he's telling stories of inhumane conditions of workers in China, which you also know to be true of so many other manufacturing plants in China, so why would you not believe the meshing of those two ideas to be true?

Writer Pam Houston has come under fire for the same sort of thing. Mixing fact and fiction in liberal amounts. She says (a bit tongue-in-cheek) that her books and stories are 82% true. The rest is from her incredible imagination. Her newest book, an amazing collections of experiences entitled "Contents May Have Shifted" (which I HIGHLY recommend!) reads like a memoir. If you know Pam, you know much of that book is truly her, or pieces of her. 82% fact is about right. But right on the cover, in case you might get angry at the "creative" part of "creative non-fiction" she has clearly written, "A Novel." 

Of course, what Pam is messing with is the facts of her own life. And labeling them clearly as not pure truth.

What Daisey messed with was the reputation of a company and its now-deceased founder. He can defend his artistic label all he wants, but it was never presented that way. It was presented as truth.

I'm all for art. I'm for making stuff up. I'm for creative license. But I think there's a point you cross a line. I think people might KNOW that pictures in magazines are photoshopped, and still try to attain impossible perfection themselves believing it to be possible. And I believe people listen to the news and read non-fiction KNOWING that everything isn't the exact truth, and still choose to believe certain things because they want to believe them, or because it makes sense to believe it.

And whether we like it or not, words have power.

What do you think?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Letting Yourself Fail

I've been mulling over the idea of failure a lot lately. It's a concept I'm okay with in theory, but when it actually happens, I find I'm not all that okay with it after all. And for a while, the sting paralyzes me a little. Have you ever had that happen?

In November I had to write a short story. I had just a week to come up with an idea, put it on paper, revise it, and turn it in. It wasn't enough time to think clearly or worry. I decided to just have fun with it, try something I never otherwise would, take a big risk. I loved writing that story.

The thing was, I knew it was a risk. When I turned it in, I said, "Everyone in the workshop is going to point out this flaw and this, and they are going to hate this," and there was a whole list of things I purposefully did that I knew everyone would think I'd done by mistake.

And I was right.

As I sat listening to everyone discuss the flaws in the story, I smiled because it was like they were falling into my trap. I wanted to shout, "Mwahahaha!!! I did on that on purpose, for a reason!"

And then, about two hours later, I realized that even though I knew what the reaction would be, at least in part, and I'd done most of those things fully knowing that I'd done them, it still hurt to hear it flailed. And then I realized it hurt, because in part, they were right. No matter whether I'd done it knowingly or not, it didn't work.

It stung a little less when my workshop leader (and soon to be advisor) pulled me aside and told me it was good to fall on our faces every now and then, that we need to take risks and try new things and, yes, even fail. He insisted he's failed much bigger, fallen much flatter than I, although I doubt that because I still think he pretty much walks on water. But it was good to know he didn't think less of me.

And yet, when I got home, I found it hard to write. I've been frozen under that fear of failure. Part of that is a need to prove to my advisor that I really can write. It's one thing to fail once; it's another entirely to fail every time you turn something in. Every idea now needs to be perfect; every sentence needs to be beautiful and concise and necessary and full of tension.

I agonize for an hour over one word.

It's getting painful.

And I can't say I think my writing is better for it.

Today a fellow student passed on this video made by a friend of hers. It's funny, but also incredibly wise. Her advice, especially the example she gives at the end about filming a scene in a movie, resonated with me, and so I'm passing it on to you. It's well worth the six minutes!

Let's take the teeth out of the shark today, shall we?

Friday, March 2, 2012


You know what I love about writing novels? One idea lasts a long time. In the case of my current novel, going on two years. Dan Brown took something like six years to put out the book after Da Vinci Code. You get one good idea, and then lots of time to develop it. I never appreciated that. Once you find that one idea, every day that you sit at the computer, the core of your story is already there waiting.

Short stories? Not so much.

Every three weeks, I need a new idea.

And I've never been one to be at a lack of ideas. I have tons of them. A word document full of dribbles and thoughts and glimmers and notes. 

But now that I actually have to sit down and flesh one out. One that has to have tension and stakes that get raised every sentence, and characters that leap off the page in 3D...

nothing works. 

I got nothing.

I sit at my computer hour after hour writing a few words, a few pages, trashing them, staring, starting over, trashing that, more staring.

I am wandering. I am trying to convince myself I am not lost. But I am definitely wandering.

Where do you come up with your ideas?