Tell the truth. This has always struck me as a funny bit of advice to give to fiction writers. Yet, whenever the credits roll on a great movie, or I reach the end of a book I wish wasn’t ending, I find myself shaking my head in wonder at the talent of the writer who just pulled off a seemingly impossible feat— to create something that is simultaneously not true, yet true. They created a work of fiction, demonstrating wild imagination and storytelling ability—while at the same time, speaking honestly (brutally or poignantly) about something recognizable or meaningful—aspirations, fears, or regrets, for example.
When I look up the word “true” on my handy Merriam-Webster dictionary “app,” it shows several definitions. One is “Being in accordance with the actual state of affairs.” Another is “Conformable to an essential reality.”
Obviously, a (fictional- not talking about memoirs or biographies here) book or movie is not factual or “in accordance with the actual state of affairs”—part of the reason we read fiction or go to the movies is to escape from the actual state of affairs! If a work of fiction seems like it springs from reality, publishers and producers spend lots of money on lawyers to come up with language assuring us that, no, none of this is real. “Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental, blah blah blah.”
But, really, isn’t it astonishing when you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, and you start nodding, or cringing, or giggling, or fighting back tears because what you are experiencing on the page or on the screen feels true—like it is “conforming to an essential reality,” or at least conforming to something in your essential reality.
I recently watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris on DVD. (spoiler alert- plot details about to be given away) The time-traveling writer-character meets some luminaries of 1920’s Paris, including Ernest Hemingway. No, the time traveling part is not what I found true in this story. But I snapped to attention at the advice Woody Allen’s Hemingway gives to the screenwriter-turned-aspiring novelist, Gil Pender, when Pender expresses doubt about whether the story he is writing is worthy of being told:
“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” Hemingway (as imagined by Woody Allen)
I love this line- this advice from one writer to another about how any story can be worth the telling – because it rings so true. It rings true, even though it is a real writer (Woody Allen), making up a line for a fictional character (Allen’s Hemingway), who is based on a real writer (Ernest Hemingway), giving advice to a fictional writer (Gil Pender), but taken as truth by a real aspiring writer— me! Besides, lots of “how to write” books give more or less the same advice about ‘telling’ or ‘finding’ or ‘speaking from’ or ‘getting at’ the truth when writing—even when writing fiction.
Logic dictates that something cannot be both true and not true. Maybe that’s why I love books and movies so much—they seem to defy this rule of logic, and thereby appeal to my sense of wonder. There’s more to our made-up stories than meets the eye—yet another reason why they should be told.
Perhaps this actual quote from the real Ernest Hemingway can explain the gap in logic: “All good books have one thing in common- they are truer than if they had really happened.”
Does telling the truth help you to write fiction?