Thursday, March 29, 2012

Truth Be Told

At a book club, some years ago, the discussion circled around the best short story ever written, Peed Onk, by Lorrie Moore (that's not the full title, but it'll get you there). If you've not read it, hurry up, because death by love can't come soon enough. If you have read it, well, let's all just read it again and meet back here. 

I'm not going to summarize it, because to do so will turn people off, the way summary so adeptly does. But, suffice it to say, it's about a woman experiencing things no one ever should. And the way she experiences them is so crystalline, profound and discerning that it will be hard for you to believe it's fiction. Because how could a person write so well, with an incandescence to cause a kind of literary snow-blindness, having not actually experienced such things?

I've read interviews with Lorrie Moore where she wearily tries to address this. Yes, she's had some experience with the subject matter. No, it isn't memoir. Things are the same, things are different. If you read the interview closely enough, you can hear her eyelids closing as she doses off.

My book club came to the conclusion, without my consent, that of course it was a true story disguised as fiction.

A true story, disguised as fiction.  I think I just came up with the title of my new book. (tm)

As a person who writes mostly in the first person, present tense, my writing is delivered in an envelope marked TRUTH. But it's a stamp put on there crookedly, in the mail room, by some exhausted pimply-faced intern who has only two stamps, Truth and Lies. On any given day, he could pick up the Lies stamp, and that would be fine too. Because writing is story telling. And story telling is about the area between truth and lies, where the heart resides.

What we writers, and by 'writers' I am including all of us, everyone, who has ever had an experience and synthesized it, so that it might be externalized - if you do that at a bar, or at a computer, on strings, woods or brass, by cell phone, status update or semaphore - I'm talking to you. What we writers do is live a life, and share it with others so that we might connect with the rest of humanity, our own, and others'.

Content is one thing.  I envy a lot of people's content for the stories it allows them to tell, even if it's awful, painful stuff, sometimes especially so. People do brave things, or even better, cowardly things. They poop on the family's towels, or hike the Pacific Coast Trail while they grieve, or survive the oncology ward with their child - content is the life lived, and we all have some. But the part that makes that content transcend the ward, or the potty, the decent to madness, or the purple toes, is the part of that content that is mashed through the sieve of the story-teller's perception. It's the stuff that has been boiled in the stew of its author's resentment and bile, their patience and grace, their hilarity, stupidity, depression, bigotry and love. The story told is the humble occupation of time and space filtered through a medium, which is then further distilled by the receiver. There are far too many layers of truth and lies through which one little story must trickle, on its journey from the dark into light. To label it one way or the other definitively, is to stop it short on a passage, to call it out, when it has not yet reached what is, largely, an unreachable destination, a final resting place of certainty. 

I believe in truth. I try to live in truth the best way I can. But I also believe in the punch line. The old chestnut: It's funny because it's true, is really a misstatement. It's funny because it could be true. Do I believe that kids have dogs lick peanut butter of their balls? Ok, that is true.  Let me think of something more truth-ish. 

Consider this statement: I, Jessica Schickel, live in the conservative, hick suburbs of Cleveland.  Compared to what? Parkman, twenty miles east of here, has a convenience store, a shooting range and a church. Compared to that, Chagrin is a confection of liberal urban delights. But the original statement is true when, like me,  you've lived in a city where the men have better make-up technique than you will ever know. When you come from cities where you can order Cuban food in the middle of the night and have it delivered with an eighth of pot.  You see, even there, just then. I don't know of any place where I could order Cuban and an eighth. But I have ordered by phone, and been delivered of, both Cuban food, and pot, though the events were separated by time and zip code.  Both things are true, but they were smashed though my literary potato ricer. I like imagining both things coming through the door at once (more than you know). And I'm gambling that you do too. You've read this far, so I'm making an assumption that you are riding happily alongside, that you're comfortable with my driving, and that you're game for the place I'm taking you to.

I'm not a journalist and I'm not pretending to be one. I am, however, a reporter. And my reportage is un-fact-checkable. That would, by the way, be the saddest job ever, fact-checking this blog. Good luck to those who would try. If you find my library card, let me know.

I'm reporting on truths that are fleeting, unreliable, squirmy things. The truth that is three people, combined into one. Truths that happened to other people, out of my view. Truths that I want to be true because they make me feel better about all the fucking lies with which I, and all of us, must daily cope. Truths that take shape in my telling of them, spinning them as I do, out of details which come to me from a memory that is riddled with mold, THC, anti-depressants, and the decay of age. Truths that morph and metastasize even as I tinge them with dye for closer examination.

Truth is often impermanent. There are moments when my truth might include the desire to punch an unknown second-grader in the teeth or  pee in the pool.  I am neither a pool-urinator nor child-puncher. But I could be. And that place of possibility, the one that lies just out of reach of fact, is where I live. You can find me there anytime, if you need, really need, to check the facts.


  1. What does one do with riced potato? Other than write beautifully put truths about truth? I don't like hate filled lies but I like love-filled half-truths. I'll read bookloads of them. And Lorrie Moore, soon. On my Kindle. Because there are no bookstores in *my* hick town just south of Mt. Everest and north of the polluted Ganges. Love. n

    1. This is one of the best comments I've ever gotten. It made me cry.

      Equally important, with a potato ricer, you make the best mashed potatoes you've ever had. But its a tool that has one function and takes up a lot of drawer space. Not for the world traveler, I'm afraid. But come here, and I will break it out for you.


  2. all I know is that Jess Schickel is the truth. plain and simple.

  3. I'm sooooooo comfortable with your driving.

  4. 2 thoughts, related, by T. Williams “I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that's sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
    And--- “Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive--that's what's good for you if you're at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. "In the time of your life--live!" That time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”

  5. I've now read this three times. It gets better and better...