Friday, November 12, 2010

Living Drama

We bought a farm in Washington, Arkansas in the 1990s while I was teaching at University of Arkansas Community College in Hope. My wife went to work for Old Washington Historic State Park as assistant curator. We had a couple of horses on the place and I had the joy of regularly riding a quarter-horse or an appaloosa through one of the few towns in Arkansas where that mode of transportation seems natural and even normal.

I didn’t get involved with the State Park activities for awhile, being quite busy at the college, but eventually, after I was elected to the city council of Washington, I mentioned to the park superintendent that I wouldn’t mind getting involved in some of the reenactments. He said, “Dan, I’ll get you so involved you will wish you had never said that to me.” And he did.

The costume people measured me for period clothing and soon provided same, from hat to boots. I did a lot of performances as judge in Arkansas’ first murder trial there in the beautifully restored 1839 courthouse. They changed actors for prosecutors and defense attorneys, sheriffs and criminals but my glum old role as judge remained the same for several years. And the superintendent was right: I did indeed sometimes wish I had never spoken to him about my desire to get involved in the dramas.

Another role I played was that of a garrulous old Confederate soldier, Danny Smith, in the outdoor “Woods Walks” that we performed for various groups at night out near Pioneer Cemetery. The culminating dramatic event in “Woods Walk” was an exchange of coffee and tobacco between my group and approaching Union scouts. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a trap and shooting broke out to the delight of audiences. I had a great death scene, in which my last words were, “Tell Mamma I got the tobaccy.” I liked acting the role of Danny better than the old judge, ticks and chiggers notwithstanding, but actually got tired of both because we did them so often.

So, I thought I was through with drama for awhile when we moved to El Dorado early this century. But that was not the case. At the insistence of my college president there, I was cast in the role of John Hancock in “1776.” Actually, I knew the part fairly well, having acted in the play in 1976 over at Southern Arkansas University. I didn’t enjoy that play very much because everything was so prescribed. The Washington dramas were more or less improvisational, but we had to stick to the script in “1776.” So I was glad when it was over.

In a sense, life itself is an improvisational drama, isn’t it? Our role is to roll with the punches and come up smiling. Some of the old movies such as “Mrs. Miniver” or “Random Harvest” are deeply entertaining because they imitate life as we know it. These cinematic masterpieces capture human resiliency, that widespread trait of remaining cheerful even in the midst of multiple setbacks. The British “stiff upper lip” or the American “don’t let ‘em see you sweat” are manifestations of the quality of our very lives. With apologies to the Bard, life is not a tale told by an idiot, but story borne of always getting up swinging before the end of the count.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Responsible Journalism

There is a big difference between telling a story believably and telling it truly. I had to learn the difference quickly in 2003 when I left higher education for a stint at journalism. I had published some fiction and one of the novelist’s main concerns is making his plot, characters and situations seem real. In other words, the fiction writer must discipline himself to be a great liar. William Faulkner, for example, said he was always such a convincing liar he had a lot of trouble telling the truth. An Oxford, Mississippi native, a contemporary of Faulkner, said the novelist once told her, “I create much more interesting characters than God ever did.”

Writers often excuse their prevarication by saying that their tales illustrate a deeper truth than verifiable reality. Perhaps a lie is not a lie when it is not intended to deceive. Our willingness to suspend our disbelief as we read a fictional story is evidence that we feel it is permissible for people to lie to us if the lie entertains. It seems particularly non-blameworthy if it enlightens.

A strange thing happens to fiction writers after they get into their plot: characters have a way of coming to life. In a way they take a kind of control of the story. The consummate American literary giant, Mark Twain, explained it this way to a little girl who had asked him how he wrote stories: “I create a few characters and turn them loose in a manuscript and before long I have a story completed and it never costs me an idea.”

But journalism is a different matter. The newspaper reporter has to deny himself, take up his notepad and record the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oh, there are many times when he may be tempted to improve upon the story in a police report, or jazz up the proceedings of city council or organize the random thoughts of a politician—but he must resist the temptation. The “who-what-when-where-why” may seem bland, but those elements of verifiable reality must remain paramount in the reporter’s consciousness.

For this reason, newspaper people ask a lot of questions and make a lot of follow-up telephone calls. If his memory fails or if his penmanship is faulty, he has to do further research. With deadlines breathing down his neck, he tries to get the story right the first time, but he dare not go to print with incomplete data, erroneous details or garbled thoughts. The reporter becomes his own best critic, insisting that everything he turns in to be published would make sense to those with a basic English vocabulary.

When the reporter goes to the courthouse to attend a trial or to look at the circuit court docket, he walks on eggshells. He dare not err for three reasons. First, he must respect the absolute truth absolutely. Second, he must not offend his neighbor by getting the facts wrong at the expense of reputation. Finally, he is responsible to thousands of people who read his report and believe it—any swerving, deliberate or otherwise, has unknown but potentially profound consequences.