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Friday, June 22, 2007

Honesty Is Such A Lonely Word (Part 1)

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” – Stephen King

I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty lately. Have you ever noticed that some of the most moving literature, the most powerful music, the most touching works of art, the most memorable movies, all have honesty as a key component? Whatever subject matter or storyline, there is truth or honesty behind what they are trying to convey.

I was listening to one of my favorite CDs recently, trying to analyze why I have such a deep emotional reaction to it, practically every time I listen to it. Why is it so powerful? Why does it move me that way? I think it’s because the artists are willing to bare their souls and be honest, about their fears, their anger, their hope, and the music and lyrics reflect that and I, in turn, connect to it.

For example, there have been several songs made over the years, dealing with the loss of a loved one, such as Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” which, don’t get me wrong, are very well-crafted songs that come from an honest place of loss and are beautiful in their own right. However, this same band, MCR, has a song about losing someone, called “Cancer”, which rocks me to my knees every time I hear it, in a way that those songs never have. Is it because the music composition is better or more complex? No. Is it because the lead singer’s voice is better than Eric or Sarah’s? No. I think the reason is this – that MCR is brutally honest about losing someone. There’s no gilded harps playing in the background, no talk of angels, but just a bare hospital room and the terrible hurt of having to say goodbye.*

You can tell the difference too, between artists who are willing to be honest, versus those who just have a clever idea, or a catchy hook of a lyric, and are trying to cash in on a look, or certain aesthetic, but there’s no honesty behind what they are doing. It’s all just face-paint and flashy costumes and a desire to be successful and famous. We’ve all watched actors that were completely unbelievable on screen and we all roll our eyes not believing a word of it when he tells his co-star he loves her. (You could almost hear him thinking to himself, “Do I look good in this scene?”) While on the other hand, we’ve seen other actors willing to sacrifice and reach into a part of themselves and be willing to be honest about it and express it on screen. Those are the movies that connect with us and that we still talk about years later.

I’ve also found that the genre or setting doesn’t make any difference. A piece of art doesn’t have to be set in clear-cut reality to be effective. It doesn't matter if it’s a band singing about a mysterious parade or if it’s a movie with weird mythological creatures involved or if the novel is set on a futuristic planet or whatever; there is a heart to every work of art. And if the creator of that work of art is willing to reveal honest, true feelings, I think that's the part that really makes it powerful and connects with people. But at the same time, it takes such courage, to bare those emotions as an artist. (Speaking from experience...)

As I have been working on my own personal fiction writing, it has become apparent to me that I need to be honest with my characters and their behaviors and emotions, and quit hiding behind cool ideas, interesting plot twists and beautiful phrasing. When I listen to that CD, and it moves me to tears like it always does, I say to myself "I want my writing to be like that." Or when I watch a movie that really affects me, I think “I want my writing to affect people like that.” Or when I watch my favorite TV show, and care so much about the characters, I think “I want my characters to connect with people like that.”

It takes a lot of courage and a willingness to be vulnerable with your feelings to translate honest, real emotions into your characters, as well as true strengths and true flaws, but I think it definitely pays off in compelling, affecting writing. Honesty in my creative writing – yep, that’s going to be a big challenge for me…

What is a piece of art (book, movie, painting, song, etc.) that moves you every time to watch/read/listen to it? Why do you think you connect to it so strongly? Leave me a note in the comments section…I’d love to discuss this further. By the way, part 2 of this article (to be posted later) is about honesty in life and relationships. So for now, let’s stick to talking about honesty in art.

*(Aside: What’s interesting, is I know some people who would listen to “Cancer” and call it cliché, while saying “Angel” is the song that has the more real, honest emotion. Is it because of our different levels of experience? If we’ve been through something, we have that sympathetic reverberation in our hearts, when we hear someone stating the truth about that experience. Or is it that we may have the same feelings of loss, but express it in different ways? So what may speak to one person’s heart, may not to another, yet both works are being honest. I guess that’s what’s awesome about the arts…they are so varied in their ways of communicating and connecting to people.)