My story, but not my truth
When I wrote, yesterday, about why fiction is not the same thing as lying, I may have given the impression that storytellers are in the business of imparting The Truth (the definitive article), or at the very least His/Her Own Truth when telling a story.
I over-complicated things, I think, by including the anecdote about parables and a Biblical literalist of my past acquaintance. I’ll try to steer clear of anecdotes today.
First, I don’t believe in one and only one truth. Yes, in certain circumstances, such as certain types of mathematical problems, there can be one and only one correct answer, but that’s dealing with a very restricted system of factual discourse. Truth, with a capital-T, occupies a different realm than facts. There is always room for another way to look at things. There is always a circumstance that we haven’t considered—sometimes because we don’t have the necessary framework to even imagine the circumstance, yet.
When I tell a story, my first obligation is to tell the story the best that I can, while remaining true to the story. That means, among other things, not holding back. Bits of my self will be revealed in the story. A poet might say I leave a part of my soul in each story; I think of it more as my notions of what is True will be evident—not so much in the words spoken by any of the characters or even the narrator, but rather in the way that things come about. An author’s fundamental beliefs inform how the story is structured, what consequences occur, and how those consequences are framed.
I’ve written about characters whose worldview is diametrically opposed to mine, and I’ve written them convincingly enough that readers assume what the characters say is my belief. I’m not being deceptive when I do this, and it isn’t even something that I’m thinking about at the time I’m writing. Once I imagine a character, I have to write them as they would react and as they would speak. If I don’t, the character isn’t believable. And I don’t mean just unbelievable to the reader—if I stop believing in the character, I can’t write them any longer.
Most stories have more than one character, and often one or more of those characters are opposed to the others. That means that a little bit of each character’s truth has to be in the story, as well.
So even in the first draft stage, a story will contain a number of Truths, some of which contradict each other. And other than trying to remain true to the vision I had when the story first came to me, and to the integrity of each character, I haven’t been thinking about a deeper truth or meaning. I’ve been focused on the story. But there comes that ah-ha! moment, when the story comes together for me, when the story reveals a truth or two I hadn’t been thinking about to me.
But that’s just the beginning.
Once I have put the story together as best as I can and reveal it to an audience (whether I am actually telling the story, or writing it for publication), an entire new kind of truth enters the picture. Because each reader will receive the story through their own perspective, and each will find their own truths within it. They may also see and recognize the truths I saw as I wrote the story. They may see some of the truths I wove into the tale along the way. They may agree or disagree with any or all of them. But if the story works, they will also find a truth of their own in there. And it may well have little to do with any of the truths I put in or that I discovered.
Other readers will also find their own truths, and each may be very different than that found be any of the other readers.
And all of those truths are real.
And by truth I don’t mean a life-changing epiphany. Sometimes we have something like that. More often it’s something as simple and mundane as, “some people never catch a break.” Most often it’s something much more ephemeral, and hard to put into a single sentence.
It’s my story, and I poured some of my self and my truth into it, but once I tell it to you or let you read it, it’s your own meaning that you find.
My story, but in the end, your truth.