The way stories are true . . . and the way reality is

The fine New York writer Nancy Willard once described something fictional as “being true, the way stories are true.” That is a great observation. Fiction can take you on a trip that feels emotionally, intellectually, and physically real. It gives you heroes and villains.  It can help you live your life.

Unlike stories, reality is messy. Its messages are mixed. It is full of events that in fiction would be dismissed as impossible, and it rarely presents itself in black and white. Reality is notorious for ambiguity and not getting to the point, and Murphy’s Law operates freely.

The difference between truth in fiction and truth in nonfiction is on my mind because I just read Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by journalist Debbie Nathan. This 2012 book is a masterpiece of persistent, dogged research. Nathan’s subject is a famous case of multiple personality: the young woman about whom the 1973 blockbuster best-seller Sybil was written. The real name of the psychiatrist who treated her for years, Connie Wilbur, was used.

However, Nathan discovered during her research that the book was fictionalized. Big time.

Connie Wilbur was an ambitious (and I couldn’t help thinking, none-too-sane) shrink who repeatedly drugged Mason and then asked manipulative questions. The horrific abuse described in Sybil probably never happened.

Reality: Shirley Mason willingly colluded with Connie Wilbur for years on the multiple personality diagnosis.

Reality: Connie Wilbur committed spectacular malpractice, while at the same time seeming to honestly care about Mason.

Reality: Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of Sybil, had doubts about the accuracy of the story, but told it anyway. She ended up writing something that was true, as Nancy WIliard would have put it, in the way that stories are true.

Good as Nathan is, I think she misunderstood the power of fiction when she wrote in the Introduction:

Why . . . when Sybil was first published, had so many millions of people like myself, mostly young and female, so fervidly embraced as truth a story whose mythic qualities should have immediately made us skeptical? How had we been so naive?

The mythic qualities are the reason the book packs such a wallop. The story invented by Mason, Wilbur, and Schreiber—and they all played their parts in fictionalizing it—was about a heroine’s journey. The young woman in the book fought great battles  to become whole, meaning that the different roles she assumed in life were not masks hiding the real person.

By the end of Sybil, its heroine was  showing up for life 100%. In reality, Shirley Mason gave up her hard-won career to move near her shrink in Lexington, Kentucky. She died in poverty.

My review policy

Writing a book is hard. If anyone doubts this, try it.

Never mind questions of quality. It is enormously difficult to achieve even ugliness, especially at the beginning. The ones who persist in their failures, failing better each time, get to the high place where they can think with justification, “This is good.”

Never mind  reviews. Good reviews feel wonderful. Bad reviews feel awful. Both are the result of readers completing stories in their own way. These things are out of a writer’s control.

I don’t review books very often, but when I do, my reviews are positive. This is NOT because I am nice. It is because I don’t finish books I don’t like and if I don’t finish a book, I have no authority to review it.  No writer deserves to be dismissed that way.

Praise means that a story got to me in a good way. It is 100% sincere. I was a reader long before I was a writer.





Stranded cows

I read Eric Hodgins’s autobiography, Trolley to the Moon. That is because I liked his other two books and blogged about them:

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

Blandings Way

In Trolley to the Moon is a  passage that perfectly describes my first drafts.

Sentences are deleted, paragraphs wrenched from their place and stuck bodily in some incongruous section, where they perch like cows stranded on barn roofs by a passing tornado.

Books I like: Blandings’ Way

Recently, I did a Print-to-Screen blog on Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. The 1946 novel  by Eric Hodgins is a treat. I recommend it to anyone looking for a summer read. You can buy it for very little money and in some cases free shipping at:



Lines from the book that never made it into the movie:

The building contractor, John Retch, presents a bill for this item:

“Extra Screws . . . $3.00.”

Mr. Blandings comments:

“A very modest sum, but wouldn’t it be more customary for you to pay me?”

The Sequel

When I found out there was a second novel about Mr. Blandings, published in 1950, I wanted to read it. Hodgins claimed it was better than Dream House. It is.

A reviewer at the time said:

Eric Hodgins is going to be a lonely and envied figure in the contemporary writing scene because of his ability to create light fiction which is hilariously funny for page after page, and yet at the same time has its peculiar content of serious significance.

Blandings’ Way is about Mr Blandings trying to come to terms with his life: his well-paid job as a New York advertising copywriter, his good-hearted, well-meaning liberal politics in conservative Lansdale during the McCarthy era (school hot lunches are considered Communistic), the great disconnect between city and  country life (he concludes that city life is far simpler), his feelings for his wife, and his two daughters growing up and going their own way.

Mr. Blandings dislikes the other liberals in Lansdale, an academic-intellectual crowd he calls the Poet and Peasant Party. He himself is disliked and snubbed by the stuck-in-the-mud conservatives who are eager to believe he is a Communist. He finds that he cannot win, maybe because he can see both sides of any question.

He makes this observation about winning:

Winning implied not only achieving an objective but holding it. Sometimes a man or a cause won some objective by a succession of crazy accidents, but holding what you won was done only by design. When you won something, you said to yourself this is for keeps; this is how things will be, and ought to be.

The Media in 1950

Mr. Blandings’ youngest daughter, Joanie, writes a national-award-winning essay in which she praises Marie Curie for her scientific work. Joanie, the Lansdale school system, and her parents are  smeared in the newspapers and radio for having Communistic leanings because:

  • From 1906 until her death in 1934, Marie Curie was a Socialist.
  • Her husband was French (“La Curie’s Frog husband”).
  • Her maiden name was Sklodowska.

The slander flies around, eagerly aided and abetted by the media. They didn’t have the Internet in 1950, but the taste for meanness and fantastic embroidery of the truth will sound familiar. Eric Hodgins was there to observe all of it.

Yet it is a funny book—a sparkling comedy of manners—because Hodgins was too smart and had too good a sense of humor to write any other kind.

He has a fine ear for voices; all his characters have individual ways of speaking and thinking. He writes the kind of easy-going prose that looks simple until you try to write it yourself. He has a splendid eye for detail, for example, the first sentence:

Outside the house it was so cold that the earth rang like slag.

Blandings’ Way is long out of print, but available in the secondary market. It is water from another time: cold, clear, refreshing.







From Print to Screen: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

If you want a witty and light summer diversion, the movie Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House is your piece of lemon meringue pie.

The 1946 best seller on which the movie was based is a fictionalized account of things that actually happened to its author, Eric Hodgins. He got $200,000 for the movie rights, which is about $2.3 million in today’s dollars.

(Ironically, Hodgins had to sell the house at a loss to recoup some of its out-of-control construction costs. After he got rich, he tried to buy it back but couldn’t.)

The house has many of the actual rooms discussed in the movie, including the little room with the flower sink.  A few years ago, it was sold for $1.2 million.

In the novel’s transition from print to screen, several things were abandoned or expanded. But the screenwriters, Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, had sense enough to leave some things alone.

One thing they had sense enough to leave alone: the iconic scene where Mrs Blandings is picking colors of paint. That scene came verbatim from the book, with a few rooms omitted. For example, in the movie, you don’t know that the master bath color “should suggest apple blossoms just before they fall.”

Another thing the screenwriters used verbatim: the $1247 for “changes in closet.”


Role of William Cole

William Cole was an actual attorney, a friend of the author’s, but his fictional role in the book is minor. He gives Mr Blandings some pointed advice and then mostly disappears.

The film makers built up the part for Melvyn Douglas, who is very funny as Cary Grant’s lawyer and best friend. The triangle between him, Cary Grant, and Myrna Loy is original to the movie.

The “Wham!” subplot and Gussie the maid

In the book, the Blandings have no maid and Mr Blandings’ success in the advertising business is because of his brilliant work on a laxative account.

A great line versus a good line

Good line from the novel: “I don’t want to get a reputation for ambulance chasing when my client doesn’t even know he’s been run over.”

Great line from the movie: “You’ve been taken to the cleaners and you don’t even know your pants are off.

The happy ending

I am glad the film makers did not use Hodgins’ ending: which is of Mr Blandings lying in bed, smiling uneasily in his sleep and dreaming of the house being on fire.

Bunny Funkhauser

In the book, his name is Savington Funkhauser. He is an architect, not an interior decorator. He is not gay. He does not suggest remodeling the Blandings’ New York apartment, which is not bursting at the seams with possessions.

Savington Funkhauser is hired to remodel the Blandings’ new house, but things do not work out. After an article about the new house is printed in a magazine called Home Lovely with a mildly critical remark about his “impracticalities,” he decides to sue.


Mr Tesander, the artesian-well digger

In the movie, Mr Tesander is a laconic old New Englander whom Mr Blandings suspects of flim-flamming him.

In the book, Mr Tesander grew up in Bosnia, of all places. He has the face of a scholar, he is an adept worker, and Mr Blandings likes and respects him from the first.

The name of Betsy and Joan’s progessive summer camp

Camp Mahottapottawamagog.

The number of closets Mrs Blandings wants in the house


How Mr Blandings gets out of that locked room

In the movie, he is rescued by his wife. In the book, a committee of local women drop by looking to register people into the Republican party.  To get their help, Mr Blandings, a lifelong Democrat, agrees to become a Republican.

Where the Blandings live in NYC, exactly

“In New York, the Blandings’ dignified seventeen-story-and-penthouse apartment building stood next door to a garage; four doors farther up the block was a ‘converted’ brownstone on whose top floor a drunken maniac had methodically slain a family of five one Thanksgiving Day just two years ago. It was a quiet, orderly block with a liquor store on one corner and a funeral home on another; rather a higher-class block than the average on New York’s fashionable upper East Side.”

What Mr Blandings says when presented with the construction bids

“Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

The book

The novel is tart, not sweet.  However, it is  a fun companion to the movie. Available at:














Virtual realities

A brilliant company called Immersive Entertainment recently optioned the rights to produce Susan Kaye Quinn’s Debt Collector series (“What’s your life worth on the open market?”), which is also quite brilliant.

Facebook recently acquired the rights to Oculus VR. Oculus will enable the type of thorough-going virtual experience that Immersive Entertainment has under development.

Last night, I attended a Facebook party hosted by Susan Kaye Quinn, where Bart Potter, the  CEO, Dan St Pierre, Chief Content Officer, and Jeroen Van den Bosch, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Immersive Entertainment, discussed the realities of creating this kind of virtual experience.

What will it look like?

What will it feel like?

Will you, the player, be the main character?

Or will you be an observer touring this vivid land?

What will it do to you to be immersed in a fictional world in that way?


Virtual reality has been around forever; it is called imagination.  A person can read a book in bed while in imagination be in the world of the book.  Actors can take you to the place in their imaginations where their characters live and breathe, and make you believe, too.

Music opens so many doors that they cannot be numbered.

Silents, Please

I was on a silent movie kick in April: three Buster Keaton shorts and Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy. One of the most thrilling movie experiences I’ve ever had was seeing Keaton’s The General at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood with a live orchestra in 2013.

In his book Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, Edward McPherson wrote “With sound, the dignity of silence was lost.” His choice of words is odd. I had never thought of dignity in connection with silent movies, but the more I considered it, the more I understood.

There was a wall between movie and audience—the wall that virtual reality will appear to bring down. You here, movie there.

The dignity is in the space between movie and audience; the excitement is in the connection.

In Sherlock, Jr, Buster Keaton stepped out of the theater and into the screen. That was 1924. Soon, a simulation of  this experience will be possible for anyone who has the hardware and software.

What book/music/art/movie/virtual reality experiences left a strong impression on you?