The truths keep coming. Or is it more of a noticing? Like when you get a new car and suddenly observe that people have that same car all over the place, and you’ve never realized it before. Except…difficult truths are more like mushrooms than cars. They’re kind of weird, a little ugly and sometimes hard to make out when they’re first making themselves known.
Lately, new ones poke their delicate yet persistent flesh up through the smooth ground of my work every time I go through my draft “for the last time.” As an example, this lovely popped up recently, unannounced: Nothing could be trusted, Grace realized, least of all herself.
Uhhh…What? That’s not a sentence that can just stand alone. Yes, it’s stating something that’s already there in a nuanced way, but now it has to be considered and then fertilized so it becomes recognizable and part of a discernible trail. And somehow, of course, there’s some of my own skin caught up in all of that.
“Once, a woman was standing beside my house, crying,” a friend said recently. “Why didn’t I ask if I could help? It haunts me.” This sparks my own memories of situations in which I did not ask—and from what, embarrassment? A misguided sense of someone’s privacy? Then I remember something even worse—times I criticized or advised instead of respectfully asking how, or if, help was desired. And…why did I do what I did? More and more, I realize that poking as honestly and openly as I can around these fungi is required if I am going to having anything worthwhile to put on a page. And it’s hard.
A quote I saw by the writer, Katrina Monroe, has been present in my thoughts recently, because it reflects something of how I feel. “Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day.” That is true for most days of writing. The fact-checking and timeline work I’m doing right now feel especially like homework.
And I would add that being a writer is like being your own therapy guinea pig, and also, figurative chef. There we must stand, processing spores of truth that are everywhere, hanging in the air and residing inside. We have no choice but to breathe them in and breathe them out. Notice the hints of them as they grow into mushrooms. Touch, pick, and study. Finally, they must be added, tastefully, to the soup of story. And sometimes, actually climbing into the soup and simmering there a while is required.
It’s hard enough with the small truths. Probing those helps prepares us for the bigger ones, which can seem more like monsters than mushrooms. Putting on the therapist hat is important here, because a big truth, and especially a monstrous one, can only be meaningfully examined when looking with eyes that seek not to judge, but to witness. And maybe wonder, and hopefully understand at least a little.
The deeper and more loaded with implications the truth is, the harder this becomes. If I truly believe in equality, for example, and that all humans deserve love and respect, and that I am privileged, then I have to shine a light on the meanness I feel toward “coal rollers” who deliberately spew toxins into the air, or toward loud men in MAGA hats—the poorly educated ones, and even more so, the well-educated ones. I have to acknowledge the truth that I have judgment. Ask why. And understand the effects: indulging the meanness will deepen a destructive divide. Consider how possibly to engage in respectful, constructive dialog. Which maybe, is exactly what we have the opportunity for in fiction writing.
Perhaps what I’m describing is probing truth with empathy. Writing with a breadth of characters and situations may well require it. The writer, Nikki Giovanni, gets at this when she says, “Writers don’t write from experience…If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”
Behind empathy is the very sensitivity that makes people write. And it’s the same thing that can make us want to turn away from the odd lump of a mushroom breaking the surface, or from a weeping wound—especially when it presents as a raging mouth—whether it belongs to another or to ourselves. It’s frightening, contagious, maybe even deadly. But sitting with the truth, especially along with empathy, eases its discomfort. Sharing truth bridges isolation. And it may have to include, ‘I’ll show you mine.’ My mushrooms, my vulnerabilities, my hard truths. And ours.
(This is Writing the Truth, Part II. Read Part I.)