Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 1 — Paying the price

I’ve been researching Gracie Allen for a sliver of a story I’m working on. She was part of the hugely popular Burns & Allen comedy team. They conquered vaudeville, radio, television, and film.

George Burns later won an Oscar for his work in The Sunshine Boys, but Gracie was the star. She was famous for her illogical logic. She saw herself as an actress, not a comedienne. She never told a joke (even privately), but she delivered her lines with perfect timing. And authenticity. She believed every word. She has been described as a method actor before there were method actors.

If a line seemed wrong to her, she wouldn’t say it. When a director asked her to “cheat” the camera as she was eating in a scene, she couldn’t do it. In fact, direction for her was superfluous. Wherever Gracie the character came from was never revealed, but the truth of Gracie (character and actress) was indisputable.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for classical acting or self-aware, break the third wall characters (for which Burns was famous). Style can triumph gloriously, but truth gets under people’s skin. It is undeniable. Sometimes, even painful.

Facts are not enough. Data, dates, and historical details? Good, but insufficient. Emotion needs to be included, but not the zeal of a preacher or the personality of a salesman or the promises of a politician. Authenticity comes from a deeper place. As a writer, you need to believe in what you’re saying and care about it. The truth you are communicating must be vital.

Risk is everything. While you can fool some of the people some the time, especially those who An essential proof for a truth that really connects is how unsettling it is. Bromides can be wise, can remind us of how things should work, and can sustain us as we work to maintain the benefits of our society. But they don’t often ring the bell of authenticity. When truth challenges, when it requires discomfort and sacrifice (for writers and readers), a price is paid that may point to its authenticity. Truth that matters enough to be authentic makes us take a chance.

Too easy. Passion usually goes hand in hand with authenticity. But it is possible to be very passionate about lies we tell ourselves. For me, the symptom of this is when all of the story (not just pieces) comes rushing out. Is it the muse speaking truth? Or someone else’s charming folly? Or something sweetly aligned with society’s norms? Or a deception protecting part of me from a devastating truth? When the piece as a whole does not raise doubts or require any struggle, alarms go off.

So, you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve gotten past glib and glamorous. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, exposing a piece of your soul. It’s authentic, and, if you’re lucky, readers (including editors) recognize and appreciate that.

And your fears come true, too. The haters descend on you. It’s not fun. It makes people uncomfortable. It breaks taboos. The ending is bittersweet or tragic. Go away.

Or, the truth is felt, but people don’t want the full truth. There’s some good stuff here. No question, it’s well done. But cut that scene that’s bleak. Make the hero a little nicer. Could you, maybe, give it a really happy ending?

You have a decision to make. Make the one that’s right for you. That’s true to who you are.

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