THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY
by Jen Karetnick
I’m a poet and fiction writer by vocation and a journalist by trade. The first two I learned in school, ultimately ending with two MFA degrees, one in each genre. Journalism I was taught on the job, trained by several editors. But seven years ago, when the economy crashed and the future of print journalism was a serious concern, I took a job in a charter school for the arts, charged with creating and teaching a program for grades 6-12 that included poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.
For poetry and fiction, I had few worries, but for personal essays and memoir, I had to expand my repertoire. That’s when I began to watch the television show Judge Judy, and found that everything I needed to know about writing and teaching creative non-fiction was an oft-repeated truism that came directly from the Honorable Judith Sheindlin’s lips.
I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. At first, I started to watch the show because it was on when I got home from school. I was so exhausted from my unexpected new career path that I immediately took to my bed, unable to do anything else but gaze in stupefaction at the television.
I settled on Judge Judy because she belittled her litigants so much more than I yelled at my students that she made me feel better. Plus, those who appeared before her were so ill-equipped to deal with the world that it gave me hope for those who came to my classroom each day, even the ones who clearly would never become writers. Or ones who asked me what country we lived in when I taught them how to write self-addressed stamped envelopes. Or who thought they could only use apps like email or Dropbox from their own computers because their parents had set it up for them to open automatically.
Before long, however, I noticed how many similarities there were in Judge Judy’s court cases to the elements I was finding in both the good and bad student personal essays. I started jotting down her phrases, which she often repeats from show to show, not just because, as she’s fond of saying “it makes good television,” but in honest, caustic exasperation. And soon I knew just how to teach my students, as well as myself, to write memoir. Don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you.
1. Swear to Tell the Whole Truth. Readers don’t relate to artifice. Even when people suspect they are being manipulated—i.e, in reality shows such as Master Chef or Real Housewives of whatever urban metropolis—they need verisimilitude. A good personal essay, even when it’s something reconstructed from so long ago it couldn’t have been completely recollected, or it’s related by a narrator whose age couldn’t have led to certain insights, has the appearance of truth.
Whenever I find myself tempted to cheat—after all, who would know but me?—I think of the Judge Judy slogan: “The cases are real. The people are real. The rulings are final.” And it’s true: Readers will make their judgments based on whether, in the end, they buy the story or not.
Judge Judy herself is a big believer in the truth. She directs her litigants to face her directly when they testify.
“Look at me when you’re speaking. Not sideways. Not at your papers. Not ‘over there.’ Here,” she says, pointing with two fingers back at her own two eyes. Then she admonishes them. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember the story you made up.”
It’s a good lesson for those of us who are tempted to embellish a memoir just to make it more appealing or dramatic for the reader. Personally, I don’t buy this “mixed genre” attitude towards creative non-fiction, largely because of my 23-year journalism background, and those to whom I teach creative writing (ages 10-18) are too young to tell the difference between a white lie and a big whopper. If they stray at all from the truth, I tell them, it immediately becomes fiction. If the bedroom wall was red, it stays red. It can’t become blue because metaphorically, later in the piece, blue means something more. Nope, red will have to do, and they will have to find another way to attest to the reader, either literally or figuratively, whatever it is they need to substantiate.
2. The Burden of Proof. Here are some other things you can’t make up: Dates. Addresses. Births and deaths. Marriages and divorces. Many of these details can be easily obtained in documents that are part of our public records system.
Writers should bring a keen journalistic eye to their personal essays. If you don’t know something, you can’t just guess. Just as the burden of proof is on a plaintiff in a lawsuit, so is it on a writer. Provide documents, photos other evidence. Think of the memoir as a case that has to be proven, or a scientific theory that has to be field-tested and corroborated, and prove it.
Judge Judy nearly always, unless a litigant is unbearably rude, constantly interruptive, or she suspects them to be on drugs, allows both sides the opportunity to present their documents and back up their points. (I actually once saw her interrupt the show to administer a drug test to a plaintiff.) Usually, both parties have gigantic files of papers with them that they frantically flip through during the lawsuit. Occasionally, though, there will be a plaintiff or defendant with nothing in front of him but the water carafe. That’s when Judge Judy will look at him and say, “Where’s your proof?”
I didn’t think to bring it. I couldn’t get what I needed. I didn’t think I would have to provide that.
These are all frequent, and obviously idiotic, answers. The cut is quick to come.
“This is a court, sir!” Judge Judy exclaims. “Where did you think you were going today, the beach?”
When writing memoir, especially about sensitive or potentially disputative subjects, a writer should never assume she’s merely going to the beach.
3. Bring Witnesses. Judge Judy often asks litigants if they’ve brought witnesses, especially if the cases involve car accidents or fights or loans or dog bites. Some claim their witnesses couldn’t make it, but offer emails, letters, or other written statements, to which the Judge will respond, “I don’t read [emails/letters/statements]. I talk to witnesses.”
Writers should always do what these unfortunate litigants didn’t: produce characters to lend credence to your words. People your essays. Don’t expect a reader to believe a narrator exists in his world alone. Avoid third-party statements—I was told, I heard, I was informed. Instead, introduce the third party and let that character speak for him or herself. Otherwise, as Judge Judy says, “That’s hearsay!”
4. Use Your Words. Too often, whether it’s a student writer or professional, I see a whole lot of explanation where one or two lines of dialogue would do. In non-fiction, as in fiction, dialogue can progress a narrative and expand it spherically at the same time. Dialogue gives characters shape, dimension, and color.
Sure, it’s easier to sum up a conversation than to write it out. Judge Judy knows this better than anyone, which is why she always demands a recounting. She says, “Don’t tell me what she said. Give me the actual conversation.” Until she hears the original diction and syntax it’s almost impossible for her to assume the veracity of the statements. Dialogue lends itself to truth, and it also reveals the lie.
It’s difficult in memoir to reproduce dialogue because memory is faulty by nature. But as long as we remain accurate about the nature of the conversation, and faithful to the diction and syntax of the folks engaged in it, we can come close enough to satisfy the demands of reconstruction.
5. Don’t Lose Your Reader. When a defendant rambles or a plaintiff is redundant, Judge Judy will look at her bailiff, Byrd, and ask him, “Do I have to hear any more of this nonsense?” or “Hurry up. I’m old, and there’s sushi for lunch.” These are warnings that she’s about to declare victory for one side or the other. Or outright dismiss the case—sweep up her robes and depart from the bench.
This is a great way to illustrate how quickly lack of clarity, or too much telling and too little showing, can lose a reader. I advise my students to imagine their personal essays in the hands of Judge Judy. If she gets to the second paragraph and she’s already shaking her head in confused disbelief, looking at the writers over the tops of her reading glasses, they’ve lost.
6. Less Is More. A personal essay is not a church confessional. Readers, however voyeuristic we may be in this know-everything, hear-all, see-all age, don’t necessarily want every last salacious detail. And presentation is as important as what is being said. Judge Judy will almost always tell an overly emotional, poorly spoken, improperly attired litigant, “This is not the Dr. Phil show. I don’t want to hear your life story.”
What she means is that naked emotion, augmented by dramatic and extraneous asides and the gratuitous offering of indecorous detail, is simply overwhelming. Too many details will overshadow the main conflict. I like to record the episodes that feature characters who receive this admonishment and play them back for my students. Then I ask them to imagine the litigant’s testimony as an essay, and how they might critique it in workshop. The prospect of being assigned such an exercise elicits groans of protest.
7. Rest Your Case. One of the most important questions a reader asks himself when he finishes reading an essay or memoir piece is, “Why did I read this? Did I learn something? Have I gained an insight I didn’t have before?” If the reader has no real idea what, if anything, he picked up, then the writer hasn’t done her due diligence. She hasn’t developed a theme or thesis; she hasn’t convinced the reader with support materials; and she hasn’t borne any sort of conclusion. On television, when the gavel falls for the final time, and Judge Judy says, “I’ll prepare the order,” at least one side usually sighs in satisfaction and says, “Thank you, Judge Judy.”
If you can’t picture a reader expressing gratitude at the end of your essay, then Judge Judy is ruling against you.
Jen Karetnick is the author of 12 books, including the poetry collection, Brie Season (White Violet Press, September 2014) and the cookbook, Mango (University Press of Florida, October 2014). Her poems, essays and plays have appeared widely in journals and anthologies including Cimarron Review, december, North American Review, Poets Market 2013, Poets & Writers, Prick of the Spindle, River Styx, Spillway, Submittable.com and more. She works as the Creative Writing Director for Miami Arts Charter School; dining critic for MIAMI Magazine; blogger for Virgin Atlantic Airlines; and contributor to TheBlot.com.
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