Interstitial Moment:

Mark Twain wrote: “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

Well, even poetry has to make sense, though it is a bend-your-mind-around-this-metaphor kind of sense. That’s what we have to remember always. Just because something is actual, doesn’t make it True with a capital T.

Let me tell you a story. This actually happened to me. To understand the story, though, you need to know that my married name is Stemple.

My husband David Stemple and I came back from a nine- month’s journey in a VW camper bus around Britain, the Continent, Greece, and the Middle East where I had become pregnant with our first child in Paris’ Bois de Bologne. (It was the ‘60s after all!)

We bought an 8 room house in Conway, Mass and two weeks later had a baby. All the furniture in the world we owned when we moved in was a brass bed, a roll top desk, a guest bed where my mother stayed for a week, and a room full of baby furniture. And so we spent our weekends (and once I was fully ambulatory, I spent weekdays) going to homestead auctions trying to furnish eight rooms on the cheap and quick. Have I mentioned it was the ‘60’s!

While David was at work at UMass, I went to one auction at the homestead of an old man who’d recently died. Because of the baby’s schedule, I’d gotten there too late for the previews.  Baby Heidi was in her stroller, so we were at the back of the crowd. All I had to go on was gut instinct when items were held up. In this way, I bought a dresser for seven dollars.

When I got back home, got the baby to sleep, and wrestled the dresser out of the van, I realized how truly ugly a piece it was. And far too heavy for me to get it into the house and upstairs by myself, so I left it in the driveway.

When David returned from work, we looked inside the drawers which turned out to be full of the dead man’s underwear. But beneath the worn boxer shorts, we found a small cast-iron bank. I shook it, and could hear the rustle of paper money and the clank of several coins. So maybe I hadn’t entirely wasted seven dollars.

With a hammer and chisel, David forced-open the bank. Inside were $15 in one dollar bills, and a couple of rare early American coins. Score!  Plus there was a newspaper article about the old man’s father who’d been in the theater when the night Lincoln was shot.

For some reason I turned over the article, and on the back was an obituary for somebody named Stemple. Now Stemple is not  a common name in New England. In fact, spelled our way, we were it.

That, as I have noted above, is the actual story. But where is the truth in it? The sense? It may give you a momentary frisson. I’ll grant you it’s a bit spooky.  But, what else?

Nothing.

It’s not fiction. Mark Twain had it right. “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

As a story, my anecdote makes no sense.

So listen to Mark Twain.

A poem, a story, a novel is crafted, not just told. The characters may be based on people you know, incidents that have happened to you, even stuff you have read in magazines or newspapers, or heard about elsewhere.  But for fiction, there has to be invention and storying. Metaphor at the ground level.

As writers we must not just go after truth with a small t, but Truth with a capital letter. And if you have to lie—tell a story—to get there, then you do.

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