On Reality vs. Realism
One of my favorite stories to tell about my childhood is about the night a cow ended up on our lawn.
I did not grow up in a rural area – I’m a city girl, and the closest I’ve ever really gotten to nature was the yearly overnight at the Girl Scout camp in elementary school, where I rode a horse named Snowflake. I’ve never been interested in country life: I need places that are open late and grocery stores minutes away. I’m spoiled. We don’t have cows.
Except one night when I was thirteen. It wasn’t really late, about 8:30, but the house was shut-down, all of us in bed reading. When the doorbell rang, my father jumped from bed and I followed from down the hall – we lived in the city, but it’s a pretty safe city. Excitement could easily come from a doorbell after dark.
On our porch was a man in his late thirties, breathless and holding a rope. “There’s a cow on your lawn,” he informed my father, who stared at him, stupefied. The man gestured in the direction of the bushes that lined the edge of our property; I squeezed up next to my father to look.
A cow. I am no expert, so I have no idea what kind, or if it was a large cow, impressive for anything besides being a cow on a city lawn. But, at any rate, it was a cow, on our lawn, that had never seen anything larger than the neighbor’s golden retriever.
“We saw it on the road,” the guy reported. “We followed it up here.” Out on the street behind him were two cars, with several other men standing beside them. These were not cowboys in the least: they wore jeans, but they all had the giddy look of people who were embarking on a random adventure.
My dad looked between the cow and the man. He grew up on a farm, knew from cows, but the whole thing was so out of place, so utterly out of context, he was speechless.
“Can you call Animal Control?” the man suggested, and my father nodded.
I listened in on the call. “A cow.” Pause. “Yes, a cow.” He rattled off our address and there was another pause. “A cow. On the lawn.”
Ultimately, the cow moved on. The majority of our neighbors were unaware of its presence as the cowboys in sedans followed it along our block, back in the direction from whence it had come. The next morning, I examined the lawn for any evidence of the cow visit the night before and found nothing; it was disappointing, in a way, until I realized I would always have this fantastic story to tell, about the cow on my lawn.
There is, of course, a ridiculousness that makes it sound like I’m full of it. Telling the tale of a squirrel launching out of the fireplace and my cat chasing it around the house sounds far more authentic: more people have experienced a wayward squirrel in their chimney, a cat who believes it is a greater hunter than, perhaps, it is.
The point of the story, of course, is in the telling. A story that sounds untrue will jar you right out of it, out of a conversation, out of a novel. A cow on a lawn in metro Denver? I don’t downplay the best details: there were four men, two cars, all of them completely out of place with a rope that was clearly for tying a trunk closed when moving a bookcase or bicycle. The cow seemed utterly uninterested in the lot of us. My father was dumbfounded.
I love to tell this story because, coming from me, it’s weirdly plausible. Why would I lie about a cow on my lawn? Who cares where the cow came from, why she was roaming our neighborhood? THERE WAS A COW ON MY LAWN.
Realism in fiction is often strangled to death. There seems to be a fine line, in the eyes of critics, between representing life accurately and representing life in fiction. I’ve been surprised more than a few times to hear complaints about some of my favorite books not being “real enough.”
What is real enough? No one’s life gets broken up by laugh tracks and act breaks. Something dramatics happens and… everything keeps going. A bomb is dropped, and you still have to feed the cat, do the laundry. Characters rarely go to the bathroom, fart, burp, shave their legs.
There is a difference between reality and realism. It’s in the depiction. In my story about the cow, there are elements left out because… it matters little to the telling of the story. No one cares that animal control never showed up or that we never did find out where the cow went off to, what happened to the intrepid Tuesday night cowboys. The story loses wind when I report my parents live a mile as the crow flies from a still-functional farm acting as a museum.
I worry when I hear people criticize dialogue as unbelievable, of situations being too dramatic. While there is a line that can be crossed, it rarely actually is. Reality is not the same as realism. Reality is our world, with its fits and starts, its long, boring interludes, its clogged toilets and cows that come and go. Realism gives the human emotion and condition without the lagging, half-hearted arguments over who forgot to buy coffee.
Who doesn’t want a cow on their city lawn? Who doesn’t enjoy a dramatic end to a chapter and a start to the next where the heroes awake with the tension of the day before that ended so much earlier? Reality, it is said, is boring, and that is no truer than in fiction. Realism outlines reality in a sharper line, gives it boldness and shape, gives a viewer or reader a place to explore their perceptions and opinions.
I miss the cow sometimes. I want to give her an ending, though I know hers was, ultimately, too realistically boring. In the telling, my hand shapes your view of her. I have always hoped to do the cow justice.