The Little Write Lies We Tell
I think the best writing advice I have taken to heart lately comes from one of my latest reads, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Francie, the protagonist, is a girl of poverty and determination. She begins writing stories that please her teacher, ones that are about butterflies and happiness, receiving praise and the coveted “A” grade mark. She then switches to tell life how it really is, the heartache of tenement living, and this alienates her teacher. Fortunately, her teacher sees the struggle Francie is faced with: the write truth does not mean the right truth.
Here is the advice she gives Francie:
“You know, Francie, a lot of people would think that these stories that you’re making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”
Another author who swerves from truthtelling into storytelling is Tim O’Brien, well known for his The Things They Carried. I found a fascinating article from the United States Naval Academy, of all places, in which there is discussion concerning future military leaders and their discernment of what is truth. The article relates this need of truth in leaders with a literary course with O’Brien’s novel as the text: (highlights are mine)
Fiction proves the golden means between absolute truth and absolute dream. It is impossible to ascertain the absolute truth of an experience, but it is nevertheless critical that one try to ascertain the multiple truths, to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” and this challenge marks the human condition. Fiction is neither counter to nor identical with the truth, though given the exigencies of war, fiction often provides the best approximation of reality; as O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (TTTC, 82). O’Brien claims that “My role is not to solve mysteries, but to expand them… To ultimately make readers think of their lives in terms of ambiguity. It’s the human condition and we’re uncertain about almost everything” (Hicks, 89-90). The storyteller takes the facts of experience and embellishes or even alters them in order to get at a closer experience of truth; O’Brien finds in fiction the possibility of expressing “that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed” (TTTC, 71). Thus, the capacity to tell a story, to make a factual account that leaves out the subjective experience into a fictional but seemingly more truthful account, is essential to understanding the experience of war for all involved and to beginning the long process of recovering from its damages and of correcting its failures.
Tell the truth. Write the story.
Anyone know if a poster of this ideal exists out there? It would go well on my office wall.