Olivia Wilde, Dashiell Hammett, Abbie Hoffman and the dead bodies in my bathtub

As a writer, I am fascinated by the way that reality and fiction blend together.  It is the subject of an essay by Ben Dolnick, Star-Struck, published in today’s New York Times Magazine.  Dolnick writes about how Olivia Wilde, at the age of 10, had a crush on him.  But what he’s mostly writing about is how he’s told the story so many times, how he’s shaped the telling to the point that he cannot honestly say whether he has a memory of the actual experience or only a memory of the storytelling about the experience.  I have that same feeling when I think about my high school graduation.  I have blogged before about the events of that day, so I won’t bore you with the retelling, except to say that a member of the local Board of Education stood up in front of the graduating class, our parents, friends and guests and assorted members of the community and accused me of being a traitor, of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.  He suggested that kids like me would be better off if we turned on backs on people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and tried instead to be more like him, a pillar of the community, volunteering his time on the local Board of Education, serving his community.  A month later, this pillar of the community was arrested for hiring someone to murder his wife.

That was more than 40 years ago.  I have told the story so many times, both orally and in writing, that when I tell it now, the words hardly change at all.  And I wonder sometimes, do I remember the events of that day, or do I only remember the story I tell about the events of that day?

I’m currently reading Hammett Unwritten, a wonderful book, especially if you are a Hammett fan, especially if you watch The Maltese Falcon each and every time it’s on tv.  In Hammett Unwritten, a fictional Dashiell Hammett, dying of cancer in 1959,  attempts to steal the Black Falcon, the fraudulent objet d’art from the “fictionally real” Black Falcon Affair, an allegedly true crime upon which the fictional Dashiell Hammett based his book, The Maltese Falcon.  If that’s not quite confusing enough, Hammett Unwritten, is written by the fictional Owen Fitzstephen, with notes and afterword by Gordon McAlpine, who is in fact, the author of the book.   As I already mentioned, as a writer I am fascinated by the way that reality and fiction blend together.

Which is a long way round to share this quote from Dashiell Hammett.  Did Dashiell Hammett really offer this advice in an article published in The Young Writer’s Monthly Journal in August 1927 or was it perhaps advice from the fictional Hammett?  And does it really matter which Hammett shared this nugget of wisdom?

“Elements of your tale may be preposterous.  What matters is not making the ‘fantastical’ plausible to your readers; rather, what matters is that the ‘fantastical’ seems plausible to your characters, with whom your readers identify as being true to life…”

I would really like to explore this idea more thoroughly, but I’ve been writing at a madcap pace in my work-in-progress about an average guy who makes a bad decision when his girlfriend turns up dead, and how that bad decision sets him on a path that just keep getting worse.  So anyway, now I’ve got two dead bodies packed in ice in my bathtubs, and a third dead body in the basement of my home.  And as if that’s not enough trouble for one day, I seem to have misplaced a duffel bag filled with my girlfriend’s body parts.

So I really shouldn’t be blogging just now.  I’ve got a few housekeeping chores to attend to before I can call it a day.


6 thoughts on “Olivia Wilde, Dashiell Hammett, Abbie Hoffman and the dead bodies in my bathtub

  1. It’s so funny how pompous asses harrumph in front of captive audiences and then expose their true nature, not too long afterward. Even narcissists hate in others what they see in the mirror. My dear friend Boulder Christina has a very fine post on narcissism, on her WP site.
    The other point that is notable here is how memories of memories become reality. I tend to remember the good parts of my high school experience, almost to the point of reinventing it.


    1. The time delay between experience and cognition of that experience may be the merest of nanoseconds, but it is the very nature of the human brain that everything in life is experienced as a memory of the actual event. Memory is, in a way, the only reality that we know. So it is not surprising that the memory of memories becomes the thing itself.


  2. Perhaps, the events surrounding the retelling of a story become more memorable than the actual story it self?

    Also, the fictionally real bit makes me think of a member of Monty Python commenting on having to play a woman cross dressing as a man in “The Life of Brian”.


  3. A lot of my childhood memories may well be secondhand products of family slideshows (we used to look through our slides every year or two when I was a child), anecdotes, and actual memories.

    I suspect Lord Peter was the first fictional detective to deal with a body in a bath, but I haven’t researched the matter.

    Don Quijote contains a substantial amount of metanarrative, with story lines petering out as the editor runs out of pages from the book he bought at an Arab’s book stall, or the document he found rolled up in a cubbyhole, or the papers he found blowing down the street. The story then resumes with text from a different document from another source. There are also footnotes from the author, an editor or two, and I can’t remember who else, making authorship a very fuzzy notion. My prof said it was Cervantes rubbing our noses in the artificial nature of the realities we so willingly inhabit as readers.


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