Where’s the Wiggle Room?
Who owns history and all the facts within it? Those who claim ownership usually do so not for any objective reason, but becuase they have invested their own time and brainpower in studying it. But what exactly are they studying?
History is not what happened – it’s the small parts only that we have knowledge or evidence of today. Most of history is unknown and its details will never be recovered. So what is being studied is piecemeal and one can hardly assume ownership of so much that will forever remain so elusive.
But I have just encountered someone who seems sure that he owns my story. He’s just begun reading the manuscript I sent him (I’d asked him for a blurb), but he has stopped already to email me with his considerable concerns. It’s so wrong, he says, because “certain statements or passages conflicted with my own rather highly developed constructions of what these figures whom I have studied my whole life would have thought and done.”
Who is this hideous person I have riled and offended? Not a novelist, but a scientist, and straight-and-narrow scientists have so little wiggle room for any aberrancies.
History, I maintain, because of its incompleteness, must be speculative. We augment what we know, filling in gaps with plausible fictions. The scientist will apply one kind of filler, the novelist another. The scientist’s material is fixed, rigid, and impervious to fancy. The novelist uses a substance more permeable, one that can ooze or flow beyond the known factual boundaries.
My character Lulu (modeled on Wrexie Louise Leonard, secretary – with benefits – to astronomer Percival Lowell) follows his lead at first, sees the canals on Mars just as he sees them, but eventually she seeks her own answers to the mysteries of the universe. Her “research” methods are questionable (I am a secretary, not a scientist, she writes in her journal), her conclusions so daring that she can only record them in her secret diary. In my story, Lulu is reprimanded by her boss:
When we are not observing them, we invent and tell each other stories about the Martians – what tools they use, what nourishment they need, what lives they live…
The Martian marriage must be built on a mutual commitment to survive the difficult circumstances of their lives. I begin my story and then stop it abruptly. I can tell from their uncomfortable shifting about that none of them has ever imagined a Martian female alongside the Martian male.
“It may not be that way at all on Mars,” Dr. P politely disagrees with me, and I sweetly remind him that we are spinning tales which are not necessarily truths.
“Stories,” he declares, “must have some factual component.”
“As does mine,” I stand my ground. “If the Martians have survived to this day, and if they are to survive into the future, they must have some way of coupling and bearing young ones, as we do here on Earth. Otherwise, who will maintain the canals? Who will benefit from the water they transport across the planet? Who will visit the shaded oases in the company of a pretty young Martian in a fancy outfit?”
My offended scientist offers this well intentioned advice, mirroring the same know-it-all male perspective:
“…I think in writing about what Wrexie may have thought about what was happening around her it would be better to stay within the scope of what her closest colleagues were thinking. She would not have been a more advanced thinker than Percy, for sure, and would have been submissive to his opinions (he wouldn’t have tolerated anything else from a secretary).”
This is actually good for me. Once published, I have to be ready to defend what I’ve written. This is good practice, and surely the practice will make me perfect.
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