We all heard the question, “Are you telling the truth?” often enough as children, but until recently, I never thought to ask it of my fiction writing. An earlier inquiry might have saved me years of rewriting, during which I thought the problem was the plot, the point of view, the pacing. Aspects of the craft did need consideration, too, but they were not the essence of what made writing instructors and editors say to me, “The writing is strong, but the story is still not quite there.”
Worse than hearing those words is the fact that someone else can almost never tell you what to do about the problem, how to solve it. (Neil Gaiman is spot on when he says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”)
Good writing often appears simple and analyzable in retrospect, but on the front end, a formulaic approach to its creation will leave it soulless. Why? Because it’s not so much good stories that move readers; it is truths, especially raw ones. Here is Elizabeth Strout’s own shared insight, in a New Yorker article:
“Strout had an intuition that the problem was…’she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.’ Strout remembers thinking, ‘I’m not being honest. But what am I not being honest about?’”
It sounds like a simple question that should have a simple answer. But nothing could be further from, well, the truth. We dance around it, because the raw truth often looks like a hideous wart, a disease long hidden under so many layers of scar tissue that its shape has been lost and can only be discovered by apprehensively, painfully, peeling back the protection.
The veracity to be shared may not be specifically personal to us, but trying it on as such gets closer to truth. It matters what kind of eyes we bring to inspect it, taste it, own it in the story–seeking not to preach or judge, but to hold up for witness. How painfully, but truthfully, we as readers experience the self-sabotaging unkindness of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, the mortal jealousy of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Puritanical mob mentality in the Scarlet Letter.
Bringing the hidden truths and banished emotions of our human experience into the light, onto the page, is powerful far beyond words. When the truth is written as truthfully as possible, the chronic pain of deep wounds is eased, the personal isolation of hidden “flaws” is bridged. A writer reaches a hard won place of authentic shared humanity.
Ernest Hemingway is often quoted as saying, “The writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” What his advice glosses over is that many important truths can only be revealed by purposefully ripping away protective scabs and asking Strout’s question of: “What am I not being honest about?”
(This is Writing the Truth, Part I. Read Part II.)