Stranger Than Fiction (#1)

May 31, 2008

Futility? Obviously I’ve been feeling morose.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to find some way to justify my prior post about sublimated incest and, finally, days late, of course, what I was overlooking struck me like the proverbial heap of bricks.

That said, our first installment of “Stranger Than Fiction”.

After all, this was part of the problem I was having dealing with the idea of a Purity Ball. On the one hand, I don’t think I ever would have come up with a road story about driving across three states to shack up with my daughter in a hotel and then pledge to enforce her sexual purity in front of a roomful of people. Really. Maybe that says something about how flat is my creative arc of late, but still, even if I did invent such a tale, would it be readable? At what point do we look at a character or plot and say, “No. No way. Absolutely no freaking way. Just … no.”

So, anyway, most of us, I think, are familiar with the idea of the “alternative weekly newspaper”. Hell, where’s Decker? Anyway, up here we have The Stranger (in which our man Edwin appeared once upon a time). And a regular column, penned by David Schmader, is known as “Last Days”, which features everything from the droll to the bizarre, and even the occasional horrifying tale of our humanity. Including the following, from earlier this month:

THURSDAY, MAY 8 The week continues with a tale that seems custom-made by God for this column, combining as it does several of the worst scenarios Last Days has ever acknowledged. The place: 80 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin, where, as the Associated Press so succinctly put it, “Two children and their mother lived for about two months with the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home’s only bathroom, on the advice of a religious ‘superior’ who claimed the corpse would come back to life.” As the AP reports, the saga kicked into high gear yesterday, when a woman asked sheriff’s officials to check on her sister, 90-year-old Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth, who had not been heard from for some time. Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil arrived at Middlesworth’s residence to find 35-year-old Tammy Lewis blocking the door and a horrible stench fighting to get out. Once inside, the deputy found hymns playing on the stereo, religious materials scattered everywhere, and “something piled on what appeared to be a toilet.” The source of the mystery pile: Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth, whose body was left on the toilet for roughly two months while Lewis—under the guidance of 57-year-old, self-proclaimed bishop Alan Bushey—tried to fulfill God’s prophesy that Middlesworth would come back to life if Lewis prayed hard enough. Unfortunately for everyone, Lewis’s prayers failed, leaving her family—including a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son—to live with a rotting corpse in their home’s only bathroom for two months. Tomorrow the kids will be placed in foster care, and Tammy Lewis and Alan Bushey will remain in custody on felony charges of “being a party to causing mental harm to a child.”

And, no, religion will not always be so prominently featured in coming installments. Although it helps, as was the case with a local tipper’s account in the following week’s column about a religious man attacking a blind woman on a bus.

I mean, really. Maybe our agents can help us out on this one. What would they think if I brought them fiction telling such tales?

Which leads us to the point, and a possible cause. Truth, after all, is stranger than fiction, and for obvious reasons. We ought to consider the merit of attempting to turn that axiom on its ear.


(PS — I did find the original AP article Schmader quoted. Get it now; I haven’t figured out how long the AP/Google links last, but I do know they eventually break.)



  1. […] Jeff Wheeler wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThat said, our first installment of “Stranger Than Fiction”. That was, after all, part of the problem I was having dealing with the idea of a Purity Ball. On the one hand, I don’t think I ever would have come up with a road story about … […]

  2. I read a short story when I was much younger (the Jurassic Age, I think) about a troubled young girl and her well-meaning neighbor. It was an intense psychological study, very strong and very intriguing to me – until I got to the end of the story, where the girl killed her mom, then stuck her in the bathtub with about 4 dozen raw eggs. At the time I thought that was the stupidest ending I ever read, because no one would ever do that “in real life.”

    After reading some of today’s headlines, I’ve changed my mind.

  3. Okay, you got me. Were the eggs symbolic, or was there some practical purpose about them?

  4. Neither, that I could tell, and as a youngster who grew up looking for all the signs that Paul was dead (or was he the walrus?), I was searching for the deeper/alternative meaning in everything I read, heard or otherwise witnessed.

    I think the whole purpose was to show the kindly neighbor that the girl was truly nuts. Because, just murdering her mother wouldn’t be proof enough.

  5. Well, there you go, then.

    And, er … I’ll have to go find it again, but I recently saw a website about Paul being dead, and I don’t think I had ever heard about that story before. Which is weird. I would think I at least would have heard the suggestion.

    Oh, hey, that was easy. Try this link: Paul Is Dead

  6. Sorry about the archaic reference. I keep forgetting that I’m so-o-o-o-o-o-o much older than… than everyone on the planet.

  7. It’s not that archaic. At least in my circle. We’ve waxed philosophical before about an amazing recording of the Beach Boys from the original Smile sessions in which they all dropped acid and tried to play a game called “Life Raft”. The Beatles, like Brian Wilson, are still relevant to some of us young’n’s, which is why I was surprised to have not heard about the Paul is Dead controversy until earlier this year.

    Of course, did you ever hear the one about John Lennon kicking his gay lover to death? I mean, I know a little bit about that story, so Paul being dead? Heh. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

  8. No, but I did hear about Richard Gere’s run-in with a …

    Nevermind, we’re getting way off topic. Was your original question: at what point is a plot or character too icky to be believed, or too unbelievable to be believed?

    As far as too icky, I’m torn. I think a writer should be free to investigate, illuminate situations and people, whereever that takes him. On the other hand, in the current atmosphere, certain subjects may brand the writer a proponent of pedophilia, bestiality, or other misbehaviors. Which may or may not be the writer’s intent.

    If you’re asking, when is a plot/character too unbelievable to be believed, I think it depends on how well a writer writes. We’re looking at the examples you’ve given (the Purity Ball, the dead woman on the toilet) from the outside and shaking our heads, saying, “no freakin way.” But if you, as a writer, took us into these worlds and introduced us to these people, we might be shocked or horrified, but we would believe you. I think that’s a fundamental rule about writing – the reader should never stop, mid-sentence, and say, “Wait a minute. Character X would never do Y.”

  9. But if you, as a writer, took us into these worlds and introduced us to these people, we might be shocked or horrified, but we would believe you. I think that’s a fundamental rule about writing – the reader should never stop, mid-sentence, and say, “Wait a minute. Character X would never do Y.”

    To throw a twist into it, what about minutiae? An obvious question: Why are you (the writer) telling us this?

    I think, broadly speaking, I’m reaching after some abstract thesis that pertains to style, appeal, storytelling priorities, and the relationship between reader and writer. Steven Brust has long included discussions of food in the narrative, and perhaps the cynical reader might suggest these words are somehow wasted, or filler, or a form of stalling. But by the time we get to Dzur, food becomes an overarching metaphor of some sort, anchoring the story similar to how the protagonist’s instructions for the tailor became, essentially, chapter titles in … was it Phoenix?

    You might never see in a movie or read in a novel the detail of a heterosexual male plucking his nose hairs or shaving his legs. And to recall the infamously ridiculous babysitter scene in Risky Business what, in a more serious and dramatic context, could we offer the audience by a masturbatory fantasy scene? Could the psychology of driving three states to a Purity Ball be a mere component of a broader plot, or should it be the essential story in and of itself?

    In life, we might take pages or minutes to explain the perspective of a single remark or action. It seems a tremendous challenge sometimes to condense the whole of a character’s life into few enough words to suit the rhythm or other demands of the narrative.

    Of course, maybe I’m picking nits.

  10. No, I think you’re not picking at nits at all. It’s a common headache among writers. How much is too much info? I think we have to ask ourselves the hard questions, hard because we may have a passage or chapter that we’re in love with – the words are so beautiful we almost can’t believe we wrote them. But do they drive the story forward? Do they feed the mood we are trying to set? Do they shine the correct spotlight on the character?

    Or are they just really pretty flotsam?

    I believe that, in the first draft, you write it all and don’t worry about it. After that, you put on your Ruthless Hat and start chopping. And after that, if you still don’t know, you start asking for critiques – and only take the comments seriously when you hear the same one from at least three people.

    At least, that’s the way I roll.

  11. BD’s Stranger Than Fiction obviously dovetails with Shrinking Fiction(one of my pet projects,) so allow me to further reply to Gayle about “The Purity Ball Fathers,” I think that the desire to pathologically control their younger women is more easily diagnosed here than psychological.
    This would be consistent with Stanley Keleman’s rigid structure type and Wilhelm Reich’s phallic-narcissistic structure type. “Purity Dads” are interested in controlling their own sexual urges, then, their daughters’. One of them even inadvertently lets this slip out this when he says that this control of his daughter prevents him from cheating on his wife. As if this was a good way to be faithful to a partner.
    First, we have the fear of their own sexuality then a control mechanism projected onto their daughters. This is the psycho-physical overreach of the individual with underbound muscles married to the need to dominate.

  12. Correction:
    …”The Purity Ball Fathers.” I think that the desire to pathologically control their younger women is more easily diagnosed here than psychological incest.

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