Picture this: You wake up in a dimly-lit room. There are no windows and the building is utterly silent. You go to the door and step out into the hallway. It, too, is dimly-lit. You follow the hallway until you come to a staircase. You cannot see more than one flight above or below you, but you decide to start going down the stairs, anyway.
After a long time of descending and still not reaching the bottom, you get the sense that this is a very tall building, indeed.
Now describe to someone how tall it is.
You can’t do it, can you? All you can do is describe the darkness that surrounds you, or how long you spent walking down the steps without reaching the bottom. Something’s missing…
Recently one of the students from my writers’ class sent me some pages she had written. In it, she recounted a real life tragedy that she had experienced. It was all there on the pages: the grief, the anger, the despair. It was incredibly powerful.
But it wasn’t a story.
Because she was still dealing with pain and loss, she couldn’t express anything but those things. She made a stab at putting a narrative around her experience, but she was too lost in the emotion to give it any structure. The piece did not have characters or a setting or, yes, a sense of perspective.
What it did have was truth.
Truth is immensely important for a writer. It is something we, as readers, recognise, and it’s how we separate the greats from the hacks. Note, I’m not saying it’s the difference between literary writers and those who produce genre fiction. I’ve read works of ‘literature’, I bet you have, too, that are very prettily written but have no truth. By the same token, I’ve read detective novels and urban fantasy pieces that burned my heart because they were so truthful.
Obviously, the ideal is to have both the pretty words and the savage truth in the same story. That’s literature worth starving for.
Truth, though, what is it? What do we mean by it in literature?
I’ve been puzzling over this for a week and I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject, but I’m not much further along. I’m not sure I can tell you what it is, but I can at least tell you what it isn’t:
It’s not a recitation of facts. Anyone can do some research and get the details right. Writing the truth that comes from your heart, though, that’s something else again.
Truth-telling is not a slavish adherence to events as they happened. We are story-tellers; we should know how to make our fiction real and honest.
“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien
Fiction is the instrument we use to tell our truths. We have erected all sorts of rules about writing and we study the craft obsessively. We can cite, chapter and verse, the way to create believable characters; how to make a setting come to life; how to structure your novel for the best impact. But where are the manuals for how to write honestly?
For that matter, where are the manuals about living honestly?
You can’t separate them, you know. You cannot hope to write an honest tale unless you are living an honest life. Be truthful with yourself. Accept the pettiness and the anger that you would rather ignore. Understand your own frailties and those of the people around you. Books are about damaged people. Books about paragons are dull. Worse, they are lies.
Be true to your characters. Allow them to surprise you, but don’t force them to act out of character just for the sake of the plot.
Many years ago, a middle-aged man was brought into hospital having suffered a heart attack. His wife and his two sons sat at his bedside as he slipped into a coma and died.
My friend Steve was the nurse on duty. He checked the patient and told the family that the man had died.
“Are you sure he’s dead?” the wife said.
Steve’s been a nurse for thirty years. He knows dead.
“Yes,” he said. “He’s gone.”
At this, the wife stood up and proceeded to punch the corpse and call him names. It seems she had been too terrified to confront him when he was alive. All that time she sat there looking like a grieving wife, saying her prayers, she was, in fact, an abused spouse praying her husband would not recover.
Truth, you see, is never what you think it will be.
There are big truths and small. Harper Lee used To Kill a Mockingbird to tell a big truth about racism in America. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn used One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to tell a big truth about life in a Siberian prison camp. Jane Austen used all of her books to tell us truths both large and small about women’s lives in early 19th century England.
For James Joyce, telling the truth about Dublin meant going to live in Paris, then Trieste, and, finally, Zurich. Joyce knew that he could not describe the darkened building so long as he was inside it. He had to leave and stand far back to gain some perspective.
That’s the thing about truth: we all have our own version. It’s perspective that sets mine apart from yours. Perspective also helps us fit our truths into a wider context, into the world and our era.
It’s not enough for the artist to take a handful of truths and toss them on the page. Those truths must be examined, and tempered with justice and hope. These things do not diminish truth, they just make it shine more brightly. Go re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee hates racism, but look how she depicts racists. Remember, the models for these characters were neighbours, people she’d known her whole life. This, my friends, is truth honed with justice and hope.
What are your truths and how will you tell them?