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.

The humblebrag

We’ve all seen these. They go something like this:

  • “Just sold my 100,000th book; feeling blessed and so grateful to my wonderful readers.”
  • “Planning our dream vacation; so grateful for that big promotion.”
  • “I love it when people love my work. Makes me feel blessed.”

I am not superior to the humblebrag. If I had anything to brag humbly about, I would do it.

Humblebrags are unassailable, because they are humble. That is the idea, anyway. The reality is that humility does not always weigh heavily in the equation, and you can usually tell when it doesn’t.

For example, the humility of someone with a six- or seven-figure income who brags humbly about their latest success is suspect. It would be easier to take some flat-out honesty, like “Wow! Whee for me!” You can relate to that. You don’t have the burden of feeling as though you are not only less successful than that person, but less blessed, too.

On the other hand, some gratitude is unmistakably real. A feeling of authenticity shines through. It is funny how words between strangers can convey so much.

Good times at Little Lake

I was at the opening night of the 66th season of Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, last night. The rain had cleared out  temporarily, the dusk sky was brilliant, and the air was crisp. It was May 1, and May is a happy month.

I hadn’t planned to go. But I am on the theater’s email list, and in the middle of the afternoon I got email saying that the play that kicks off the season is based on a 1910 German farce about a young bride whose life is changed when she experiences a wardrobe malfunction during a parade for the king.

It was written by Steve Martin (yeah, that guy).

What kind of fool would turn that down? Not me.

As I waited for the play to start, in a seat  about four feet from the stage, I thought that  theater must be one of the driving passions of humanity. Food, shelter, sex, theater.Screen shot 2014-05-02 at 9.00.11 AM

I can imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors gathering together to watch a show or hear a story. They  might have been tired, or sick, or cold.  But at the end of the day, they want someone to connect the dots and touch the heart. So do we.

At the end of the day, the people who put on plays could be doing something else. They have jobs, they have lives. They could watch cable or play computer games, or do dozens of other things that do not involve putting themselves out on the line. Their audience could be elsewhere, too.

From the playbill:

The playwrights now how to capture our attention and, for two+ hours,  transport us to places that connect the dots, engage our hearts, nourish the spirit and prompt us to laugh out loud when we least expect it.

“We are hard wired for story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall, a Washington and Jefferson professor and author of a terrific book:  The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Storytelling, he says, is one of our survival skills.

Little Lake’s 2014 season includes eleven plays.



MST3K gets the press it deserves

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Definitive Oral History of a TV Masterpiece in Wired is a long treat. MST3k’s major players start at the beginning and cover everything about the show’s rise and fall, and possible resurrection:

Joel Hodgson Wants To Resurrect Mystery Science Theater 3000 In 2014

(Netflix, are you listening?)

MST3K came slightly in advance of the personal computer revolution, which was just underway in the mid-1990s. I remember the admonition at the end of every episode of this great show:

“Keep circulating the tapes.”

It is time to perform my own minor resurrection—of a superlatively odd  blog I wrote about MST3K. Although I posted it in 2013, I actually wrote it in the late 1990s.

Titled “I channel Pauline Kael,” it is a rave review of the show as the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael might have written it.

There is a link to a second blog: “The funniest show in the world.” Clicking on it will provide an unexpected reward: a card signed and sent to me by members of the MST3K cast, back in the day.

Here it is, slightly edited:


Back in the mid or late 1990s, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka, the funniest show in the world)  was on Comedy Central, I wrote a rave review of MST3K in the style of movie critic Pauline Kael. I do not remember why I did this—to see whether I could, probably.

Not long ago, I found the review in a box of MST3K memorabilia. When I re-read it,  I thought it was pretty good. The key elements are there—the flying semicolon half-halts, the parenthetical asides, the dashes that sent one thought banging into another, and above all, the over-the-top enthusiasm. When Kael liked a movie, she liked it A LOT.

Well, I thought, a review of MST3K in the style of Pauline Kael would not be the weirdest thing I’ve ever put up on Writer’s Rest.

So, for your entertainment, here it is.



Do You Want to Go Faster?

Most TV works like a belt of scotch; it anesthetizes you. The hot cable television hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 works like a shot of adrenalin; watching it, you can feel your brain cells waking up. It’s got a great, nutball premise: Joel Robinson, a too-smart-for-his-own-good janitor at something called the Gizmonic Institute, is shot into space by his evil boss and made to watch bad movies forever.

In self-defense, Joel and his robot companions heckle the movies without mercy. This isn’t a new concept (Mel Brooks’s short film The Critic comes to mind), but it is the funniest, most completely realized vision of the idea ever put on screen.

Joel Hodgson, the preternaturally gifted young comedian who created MST3K, plays Joel Robinson as a saintly smartass; he has a mild demeanor but a smile that says, “I see through you.” (That smile was probably what got him shot into space.) His bosses are a loony named Dr Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his dim assistant, TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). They check in every week with taunts, bad inventions, and worse movies. They want Joel’s anger. They can’t have it.

Joel Robinson is that rarest of science fiction heroes—a human who is as likable and interesting as his robots. (In science fiction films, it is usually the robots you fall in love with because they have fresh ideas, and are funny.) He has nothing to fight his fate with except a kind heart and a smart mouth, but in MST3K’s inspired mythology, those are killer weapons. Light sabers and proton phase torpedoes don’t work when the enemy is The Castle of Fu Manchu; a sharp sense of humor might deliver a death blow.

Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy are the actor-writers who do the voices of the robots Crow and Tom Servo. They are wonders—jazz artists of language. Beaulieu seems to have a limitless number of voices at his command, and more incredibly, he seems to have no speciality; he does all of them well. He plays Crow in such as way that you hear what the robot says and you hear what he doesn’t say, too: Crow has depths (even if he is assembled out of old sporting equipment).

And in the days of radio, an entire empire could have been built around Murphy’s rich voice. Tom Servo has plenty of teriffic lines, but it almost doesn’t matter. You just want Murphy to keep talking forever (or better yet, to sing).

Watching whatever lousy movie, Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo fight back with parodies, quotations, puns, scathing observations, dirty jokes, disingenuous questions, memories, metaphors, moral instructions, sarcasm, safe driving tips—anything to put some distance between them and the godawfulness of what they are seeing. These guys use one-liners the way that science fiction heroes use souped-up starships: to blast their way out of a bad place.

The miracle is that they mostly succeed; like the beat-up freighter Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, MST3K may not look like much, but it can make the jump to lightspeed. The hapless movie of the week gets left far behind—possibly in another dimension.

The bad movie may really be stuck in another dimension. It is on television; the heckling happens in a place that strongly resembles radio. That is how it seems. You’re watching the film, but you’re listening to these three voices in the dark. Hodgson, Beaulieu, and Murphy are talking fast and brilliantly, and they are taking you away from the movie.

MST3K gives you more than you are used to getting from television. It is in-your-face alive, and it treats the viewers as if they are alive, too (no wonder its fans love it). The show gets you laughing helplessly not just because it is funny, but because it makes you so happy.

Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

Lindsay Edmunds:

A striking epigraph, a very early example of eco-poetry, and a memory of the great writer Russell Hoban.

Originally posted on what a lot of birds:

Destines of rustI came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please?

View original 242 more words

My New Year’s Resolution – To Get A Divorce

Lindsay Edmunds:

My phone is incredibly stupid — the kind that provokes sarcastic comments from total strangers. But I recently bought Antisocial, an application that prevents me from going onto social media sites, etc, when I have higher priorities such as work. What is the allure? I’m sure not immune to it.

Originally posted on Bucket List Publications:

Samsung Texting

I’ve been cheating on Darren for almost two years and it’s time I admit it to myself and the world. It’s with someone who’s a reliable, funny, genius and never leaves me feeling lost. But if you’re thinking, “What a ‘….'”, give me a minute to explain because I think you’ve been cheating too and it’s time we get a divorce.

View original 348 more words

Where do the stories come from?

I am unqualified to deliver pronouncements about the future as it applies to machine technology, though I did it once with a novel about life in a future machine age, CEL & ANNA. I am about to do it again with a second, darker novel: WARNING: SOMETHING ELSE IS HAPPENING.

These novels are no good on a technological level. They have no technological level. So where did they come from?

Why choose me?

The only advantage I have as a teller of these tales—at least the only one I can think of—is that I have been using computers for a long time. By the mid-1990s I had owned a personal computer for 7-8 years and been using social media for about 3 years.

In 1988, my brother gave me a cast-off  Mac Plus. One day after I got it, I used MacPaint to do the drawing below. Since I can’t draw, I was impressed that MacPaint enabled me to create something recognizable.

Desert Moon, created in MacPaint

That  Mac Plus had a 9-inch black and white screen, a floppy drive, and an 8 MHz processor—it was not even a toy by today’s standards. Yet that little beige toaster was a meteor of the personal computer revolution.

I was living in Washington, DC, at the time and belonged to an Apple user group called Washington Apple Pi. It was a time of high excitement and the reason was simple: The world was about to change forever and everybody knew it. The “something’s coming” feeling was in the air.

There are a lot of experiences in life I’d have been happy to miss but not that one.

Remembering before and after the Internet is useful, because someone who remembers will never, ever underestimate its influence. We are all different because of the internet: you, me, the people at the grocery store, and the grocery store, too. We take the internet for granted now. We should not.

I tried to explain what it was like to watch everything change in After This: Notes on the Computer Revolution.

I wrote about where stories come from before, in a post called The Circling Muse. That one was mainly about Nancy Stouffer, who created a character called Larry Potter and later tried  to claim a piece of the Potter pie from JK Rowling. (She didn’t get anywhere, but her story is weird.)

Below is a picture of my muse, drawn by the brilliant Edward Gorey

My muse: the Osbick Bird

My muse: the Osbick Bird