A relative recently wrote to me because he recognized another family member in a fiction piece of mine. He condemned me for making inglorious details about this person public. Public is the keyword here. He wrote that I should “keep that shit within the family.” He called my writing “filth.”
Not once did he accuse me of getting the details wrong or of lying. What I’m guilty of is honesty, the very thing I strive to achieve in fiction.
That the story in question is fiction is irrelevant to him because there are truths in the piece, and not just any truths, but gritty, embarrassing, painful truths. These are the kind of truths that are gold to me as a writer (and as a reader). There are many reasons why I write (and read), but one of the most primary reasons is the quest for truths, especially the kind of truths some people don’t want to talk about, the kind of truths we carry around inside us because we’re afraid no one else will identify with us, because we’re afraid others will judge us.
This family member may never understand or accept why I write what I write, but I’m taking his response to my story as an opportunity to consider why voicing such truths matters so much to me. To do this, I should first clarify what I mean by that term, truth. When we talk about truth in fiction, we may mean a variety of kinds of truth, from the concrete details that help make a setting real and believable, to the dialogue and actions that ring true based on what we know about a character, to fresh and surprising figurative language that hits its mark so perfectly. We also mean Truth—the emotional truths concerning what it is to be human such as what it feels like to want something we can’t have, or to recognize that we’re yet again projecting our judgments of ourselves onto others.
All of these kinds of truth are important in fiction, but the real prizes are the larger truths, the stuff that gets at the heart of human experience. These are also the most slippery of the bunch. The funny thing about truth is that identifying what isn’t true is often easier than identifying what is. That is, we may revise a story twenty times and know each time that it doesn’t ring true, but in so doing, we may not be all that much closer to putting our finger on what the truth is. We have to keep writing until we find it. We have to settle for nothing less. This challenge is one of the great joys of writing. It’s also one of the reasons writing is such hard work.
Let me be clear here that I’m not claiming to have a special relationship with the truth. I can’t say what is true for the relative who wrote to me to condemn my writing (and me) just as he can’t say what is true for me, despite his claims to be able to do just that. I can have suspicions. I can explore these in fiction, but whatever truths I stumble upon in fiction may or may not apply to the people or events that inspired me. We writers know, however, when we’ve hit upon the truth in fiction. Sometimes we know it immediately. Sometimes it takes time and distance and confirmation from readers. But when we know we’ve hit upon the truth, we and our readers feel it viscerally.
As I said, the story my relative responded to is fiction. As is the case with all fiction, arguably, some of it is made up; some of it is inspired by lived experience. The ratio can run the gamut. The beauty of fiction is that as writers we can use real life details where they service the emotional truth of a story and chuck them when they don’t. We aren’t indebted to what really happened, but we also aren’t forbidden from making use of real life details when they serve a story’s needs.
The particular story my relative objected to resembles real life more than many others I’ve written. I understood this choice came with risks, but the choice felt emotionally truthful in this case, so much so that I felt the story would lose that truth if I replaced those details. I’m saying that for me at least, the emotional truth is that sacred. Once I hit upon it, I’m not about to let it go, even if it means keeping details that might make someone wonder if they know the character in the story, even if it means someone’s feelings may get hurt.
If the truths in this particular story of mine are shit and filth that I should have kept within the family, to evoke my relative’s language, then perhaps part of what I do as a writer is feel around in the plumbing until I get hold of the muck that’s blocking the drain and pull it out.
So why pull it out? Why not keep that shit within the family (or within the community or the culture, etc.)? Why is truth worth searching for and bringing forth in all its ignoble detail? Why is it worth the sometimes agonizing effort to put the truth into just the right words?
One answer is that that shit is there whether we talk about it or not. It doesn’t cease to exist when we pretend not to see it. It doesn’t disappear when we tell ourselves that we are bad people for seeing what we see or feeling what we feel. More likely, it piles up, and if we don’t reach in there and unclog the plumbing, we’re really going to have a mess on our hands. I’m being serious here. Ignoring the truth and concealing the truth: these actions make people sick. There’s nothing as stressful as being afraid of the truth.
The reverse is also true: there’s nothing so healing as being honest. Not being afraid of the truth, standing up to it and looking it in the eye: that’s liberating. And the fabulous thing about putting this shit into words for others to read is that our words have the potential to liberate our readers too, or some of them anyhow. A few is enough.
And then there’s this: making something beautiful out of what pains us or scares us or angers us or embarrasses us, there’s nothing more satisfying in all the world.