Tuesday, February 20, 2007

True lies

Someone asked me today if I write any other fiction besides my novel. And I got to thinking, no, but I'm not supposed to, right? I mean, I work at a magazine, where I write fact, as expected. Because we all know what happens when you try to write fiction and pass it off as fact, don't we?

Still, it wasn't always this way for me.

Flashback to first-year university. In an attempt to make journalists out of freshmen, my Print-Journalism professor was constantly sending us on assignments for his class. To interview real people. Who would give us real quotes. Which we would then insert into the rest of our real story. It was awful.

I used to be afraid to talk to people. I'm extremely introverted, and would be happy to read a book all day. I'd even be happy to work on a writing assignment--even for my crazy professor. If it just involved writing. No interviewing, no talking to strangers. No finding a stranger to talk to, then talking to him.

It wasn't that I didn't try. Each week my professor would give us the assignment, and tell us where to go to get the interview. And each week, I would take the subway to the courthouse, a community centre, even to The CNE during the Royal Winter Fair, wherever we had to go that week. I'd walk around for hours trying to get my nerve up to talk to someone--anyone. But usually, my nerves would win out and I'd return home, or to school, without the quote. And then I'd have to go back the next day (because we often had at least a couple of days to do the story, so I was able to, unfortunately, procrastinate). It wasn't that I didn't want to do the assignment. I loved writing the story and I could usually do it within an hour. The problem was getting the real facts and the real quotes.

Thankfully, after a few weeks we had to start turning in the story by the end of the day, so I wasn't able to procrastinate, at least, not as much, anymore. I couldn't go home, eat cookies, and go back to the courthouse the next day to try again. I had to find someone to talk to me. At most, I could duck into the high-crime courtroom for a few minutes, but usually, the guilt of avoiding the task at hand would taint the experience and I'd force myself to return to the parking ticket courtroom in session. The problem was, I knew how I wanted to the story to play out, both sides, controversy, angle, and all that. But because I was so shy, I just wouldn't ask the right questions (or enough questions) to get the source to tell-all, or even to give me an A-worthy quote. So I'd just make it up. Not the whole story, just some of the quotes. I'd just make the source sound much more intelligent than he really was. I'd make him reveal his passion for parking in places he wasn't supposed to, his contempt for the convenience store that called the authorities.

It was so wrong, but finally, that course ended and I moved on to magazine writing, where I realized that it is possible to write stories about topics I found interesting and that real people actually have more fascinating quotes than I could ever make up. Oh, and I also learned to bargain with myself. Get the real quotes, go to Second Cup for hot chocolate. Finish the story without making anything up, buy myself a new handbag.

It worked. And my fiction journalism days were over.

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