Monday Motivation: Seek to be honest, seek to be truthful
The world, our institutions, and our so-called opinion-makers, speak a great deal about facts v. fiction, about fake news v. the truth. But where does the writer of fiction stand when it comes to these issues?
What we write are lies. The actions we describe have never happened. The characters we animate have never existed. The worlds they live in are figments of our imagination.
And yet, by an act of legerdemain and artfulness, we persuade our readers that, while these worlds and characters and stories are not part of the real universe, they nevertheless possess some claim to be aspects of the truth.
How do we do this? For some writers, it’s important to get all the details right – and I mean, all of them. So someone might set out to track the routes that Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus followed through Dublin on that memorable day of June 16, 1904 – Bloomsday. James Joyce got every detail of his beloved city right in Ulysses. Although he was in self-imposed exile at the time, he confirmed the names of streets and the location of shops by writing endless letters to friends in the city.
Another writer might take the greatest care with the particular firearm their hero packs. It’s not a “pistol” – it’s a Walther PPK/E firing a .380 ACP cartridge with fixed iron sights, rear notch and front blade.
Are these sorts of very particular details necessary? Well, it’s difficult to say. For a non-military man, the specific artillery might well be irrelevant in a description of a battle on the border between Iraq and Syria.
For someone not intimately familiar with Dublin, the pains Joyce took in getting his geography photo-realistically right might seem overkill.
What no writer can afford to get wrong, however, is matters of the human heart – and the believable interactions between one character and another. We hold the truthfulness of these depictions in higher regard than we do whether Jan Smuts Avenue intersects with Bolton, or whether Piccadilly is east or west of Leicester Square.
Yes, of course the physical details matter. Readers are justifiable in feeling irritated if a writer gets some detail of geography or physical science wrong. But their ire when a writer gets wrong some fundamental aspect of human psychology is even more understandable.
Which is why, when we apply ourselves to the writing of a scene in which characters get angry, or defensive; when characters weep or slam a fist into a wall; when they withdraw or when they attack – it’s here that accuracy and truth really count.
And you can’t check your facts here on Google maps. Here is where you have to peer deep into the labyrinth of your own experience, and your own feelings and seek to be honest, and seek to be truthful.