TODD WALTON: Know Your Audience


Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

Under The Table Books

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”


Alternative ending: The story in this post is fictional in itself, and the author failed to give notice.

…just kidding. But I do find the situation fairly amusing.

I write noir, so I hope my readers don’t think I murder people! Excellent article.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously. With that in mind, maybe some of those people in your various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The responses you got could have been not just that you were denying their perception but that you were challenging their dissociation. People hold onto their dissociations as powerfully than maybe anything else.

    Yeah especially when you’re narrating a story from a singular point of view. When you use “I” as the main character

      Stories are easily internalized. That is probably even more true when the narrative voice is from an internal perspective, spoken as the protagonist’s indvidualized and interiorized I-self.

      That said, people are fully capable of internalizing all kinds of stories, even completely invented fantasies or historically uncertain religious stories, sometimes from some distant indeterminate mythical time. The historical veracity of Adam and Eve or Jesus is less important than their power to compel the human imagination and that power, as religion, is very much collective. Adam or the Second Adam, Jesus, is ultimately a we-self. These stories are speaking to us all, not really being about the past.

      Narrative determines identity. And self-identity can take many forms. But to the degree that a story is compelling, it requires the imagined to be experienced as somehow concretely real. The imagination is always embodied, as Lewis Hyde explains (Trickster Makes the World, pp. 169-170):

      “[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

      “Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.”

      I agree with you in timely expect in the part where you called the history of Jesus a story. I so disagree with you. If u call me a religious freak then so be it.. The Bible isn’t a story. It’s real. The history of Jesus isn’t a figment of someone imagination. It’s so real. Whether you believe it or not, God do exist…

Better to title it as Know yourself. Truly important observations of human nature. Thank you so much.

I can understand how people can be taken away by good writing. It happened to me many times growing up. I sometimes wished strongly that I was in those worlds.

I have never heard of this happening, and it sounds honestly terrifying. What happens when you write from the perspective of a woman? Do people still get confused? I write from so many different perspectives, I can’t imagine trying to deal with my audience thinking they were all me. Not to mention all the awful things my characters do to each other…

This rings even louder knowing that people perceive most information they digest, knowingly or not, as factual and truth. Whether it be in stories, in books, in papers or in the news. One wonders when emotions go out and critical thinking comes in for some…

That is crazy. I guess it means that you’re pretty persuasive. All you can do is inform them that they’re works of fiction. Whether they believe you or not is another story.

jacquelineannemarielarkin October 4, 2017 at 2:05 pm

I really enjoyed reading this post. Interestingly, I have a writer friend who did a reading at a local bookstore and during the Q&A period fielded a few unexpected objections to his life choices and abhorred treatment of his family (the main character of his story was something of a shit). After explaining that he had infact not subjected his parents to the cruel and defiant behavior referenced in his book, which was entirely fiction, a couple of audience members, evidently skeptical of my friend’s declaration of innocence followed up rather accusatorily in saying that “those ideas must have stemmed from somewhere”.

Your post was so familiar and the subject really coincidental, particularly since I thought my friend’s story was so bizarre. Though I guess it’s a good indication if people find your storytelling abilities to be that compelling.

I look forward to reading many more of your posts!

I love this story! Amazing how the audience can do completely relate to your stories.

Whoa, as an emerging writer I find this funny and frightening at the same time! I hope I get to field questions like that one day because my audience are that invested in my stories. But maybe I’ll be a bit careful about what characters I write…

It shows the power of your writing; so good they can’t believe it is not the truth.

We all do do this. When actors play negative roles people change their attitudes in the real life, for example by refusing to serve in a restaurant in London the “Nazi officer” in mid 60th, telling him “I don’t like men reading others’ private letters”. Or we did this by voting for Arnold Shwarzenegger, mixing up his superstar roles and real political abilities as a governor of California. So we should avoid those kind of thoughts like “I am not one of those stupid people” and better to try understanding our mind games. Now we represent the most but not the last advanced human beings in the history of Humanity, our kids would also wonder how blind we were, at the same time forgetting to look at themselves as just a next ring in the chain.

You must be a compelling reader/ performer!

It is a credit to your writing that people accept it as gospel, I think that certain people have accepted lies from the media for so long that they accept anything written as truth!

I shared this post with one of my friends and she asked whether this one is also a work of fiction…

Firstly, great reference to Lisztomania! Secondly, I think this phenomenon is because that people experience life through a keyhole, and see their perspective of the world through that vision. Writers have to try and wriggle their way into the public conscience by wriggling into a variety of keyholes, also called Imagination. Thirdly, lie away, integrity bid adieu!

The reason this may happen has been demonstrated by scientists using an MRI; when people read their brain actually perceives what they read as something they are actually doing. It takes a strong mind to acknowledge that it is fiction not fact and many people don’t have that.

Then there is the other side of the equation. Most of my stories are based on my actual experiences, but I take liberties at times to highlight what I consider is a higher truth. Sometimes I introduce a totally fabricated character, but without his/her fictional help I would not move as smoothly to a climactic scene. One must remember, too, sometimes “true-life” seems wholly unbelievable owing to the string of implausible coincidences that bring change to a character’s life.

Just wow! And we struggle with teaching our children the difference between fact and fantasy. No help there from Disney and Santa Claus. When adults can’t even tell the difference between truth and fiction, what hope is there for their children to learn? It’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Perhaps it’s for the best that I stick to writing memoir.

I’ve never really thought about this until I read your post, but it has opened my eyes and my thoughts. I was reading recently on people’s differing opinions about controversial books. It makes me want to ask if some of the ‘noise’ made by readers is down to their belief in the content being true?

Sooooo True!!! But again, you can’t quite blame the listener or reader for believing it to be true for literature after all is a mirror of life, built on the imagination of a mind from perceived realities. Despite it being fiction, you cannot deny that when writing, you do live that life and that’s what lends credibility to your stories.

Humans are voyeurs in nature and nothing thrills more than the thought that they can share in your life or thought in some way, pains and joys not laid bare on your person.

Great post! 👏🏽👏🏽

Personally that one voice gives your story authenticity, your writing has worked its magic and sucked the reader into the pages, looking over your shoulder as you pen the next line. Brava I say.

Interesting story. The style of writing makes it easy for the reader to identify.

“I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity”
Well, some books have that power!

The internet has opened up a dangerous world for those who have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. Accepting sources of entertainment as truth is one thing, but believing claims regarding health issues can be harmful, as can the sites that promote hate.

This was amusing. But to be honest if I get called by an author that his work is fictional and I was the one who interpreted it as real, I would feel so dumb I would just look around nervously then sit down and cower so no one can see me.

    Amen, if this problem is as widespread as it would seem to be based on these replies, and the article itself; then the world is in more trouble than I thought. But then this could all be fiction or fake news. Me oh my, what is truth anyway? — and where oh where do we find it.

This would be funnier to me if it wasn’t a reflection on our society. Being able to distinguish between fact and fiction is supposed to be an ability adults should possess. I don’t blame you for choosing just to roll with your audience.

My fiction writing has gotten me into trouble with my husband. He wanted to know where I learned about the subject if not from personal experience, because my writing sure was believable… Both a compliment and a deep hole to climb out of at the same time. 🙂

The inexperienced Girl October 19, 2017 at 5:09 am

I find this story really amazing…. World without writers is nothing 😊