Truth, stories, and snowflakes

This is the text of a speech I gave during my recent visit back home (i.e., the US), at a wonderful author event set up by my friend Cathy. (The event was wonderful. The author was me.)

In my literal-minded youth, I couldn't see how a story could be true unless it were historically, literally accurate. I couldn't see how it could contain truth if you could still say, "But it's just a story." Eventually, I grew to realize that, in fact, truth can be more powerfully expressed in stories. But how can this be?

First, the writer, like all artists, is engaged in a process of choice, of constantly paring away what doesn't belong to get at what is fundamental to what they want to express. Literal reality is cluttered, staticky, full of digressions and distractions. It's hard to see anything clearly through all the noise and chaos. The writer goes through and picks the exact details — and only those — that will tell the story. When I'm teaching beginning writers, the first and hardest lesson I present is that the best writing is the writing that uses not the prettiest words, or the most raw, emotive words, but the fewest words. Did you ever make paper snowflakes? When you only make a few little cuts, you end up with a big, blocky, ugly chunk of paper. But when you trim most of it away, you open it up to reveal a beautiful lacy thing of light and air. Stories are like that: the fewer words you use, the more space you leave for your readers to bring their own experiences, memories, and insights.

Second, the writer harnesses the power of metaphor. One of the compulsions of the human mind is to find ways things are like each other — to classify, to connect, to understand a new thing in terms of a familiar one. We writers shamelessly use this compulsion you've got — we've all got — when we're telling a story that, on a deep, perhaps even subconscious, level, is like something that you've experienced, or that you will experience. This is so that one day, when you're in danger or despair, you'll remember how things were for a character you loved. At the very least, the writer hopes, it lets you know you're not alone — that there are people like you who have gone through what you're going through. That your story is a human story, so much so that some writer you've never even met is able to be there with you in that pain, in that fear, in that rage or desolation or loneliness, and to say, I know how it is. I'm with you. Keep going.

Third, the writer relies on you, the reader, to bring truth to the story. Remember the snowflake? The good writer strives to write as little as possible, to suggest rather than explain, to let the reader connect the clues and hints and form something they can recognize as true, to provide a powerful metaphor that the reader can use to examine aspects of their own life and see if they fit. This is partly because it's much more fun for the reader to figure stuff out than if the writer laboriously spells it out; partly because it's just basic human respect that the writer not patronize the reader; but most importantly because it leaves space for the reader's truth. You and I are a team. You bring your own experiences and interpretations with you whenever you read anything. I don't just fling my stories at you with casual indifference, take them or leave them. I offer them and wait eagerly, like someone who's just given you a wrapped present, to see if you like it, how you look when you try it on, what you construct or cook or create with it. When my books started getting reviewed, I was afraid to get my first negative review, but when it happened, I found I wasn't in such bad shape about it after all. Someone had read my words and taken the time to think about them, puzzle over them, and write a review. While, of course, I'd prefer a positive review, even a negative one means someone has joined my story team. We're on the same side! I love that! I love when people are on my story team!

So: stories are true because they've cleared away the clutter to get at fundamental perceptions not just of reality, but of what reality means. They're true because they are metaphors for people's lived experiences, for the commonality of human life. And they're true because they're a shared, collaborative art form where each person brings something to the process: their memories, their cultures, their personalities, the things that are deeply true to them. Together, we find truth. Together, we use stories to discover — and tell each other — how things work, how we can inspire and encourage and comfort each other.

I don't get why some people are so snobbish — "Escapist fiction", they sniff. It's not escape! It's reflection, a chance to pull away from the front lines and seek a better understanding of what you're facing. Sure, it's also respite, but what's wrong with that? Regardless of your politics, I'm pretty sure you can agree with me that these are frightening times. Moments of reflection and respite are crucial to everything we're all doing to make the world a better place. And I already know you're doing something, because you're readers.

We don't read to escape, we read because it gives us the strength and insight to engage with the world. To look around us with the understanding we've gained from going through hell with the characters we love, rejoicing as they rejoice, weeping as they weep, helping to build their stories in our own hearts. To apply those insights, that compassion, to the people outside of the books. Stories don't make the real world less important: they equip us to do good in a real world that is suddenly achingly important to us, because the stories we read have — subtly, respectfully — shown us what's important.

I'll go home tonight and I'll most likely do some work on a story. I'll think about the characters: what they want, why they want it, why they can't have it, why they're nevertheless going to persist. I'll think about the plot: how do they overcome their obstacles? What are they risking? What are the ramifications of each choice they make? And I'll think about world-building: how do their surroundings help or limit them? How do their cultures affect the way they perceive things and the choices they make?

But most of all, I'll think about truth. And I'll think about you, the people on my story team. And I will write the truth for you, the best truth I can, because I love you.


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