The Grasshopper Issue #84: Truth
Truth and beauty, beauty and truth
I’ve been thinking about the role of truth in writing. It should be simple but it is far from simple. There is factual truth, backed up by facts and experts and experience. There is ‘the ring of truth’ where something sounds right, there are opinions, there are intentional fabrications, and there are outright lies.
I’m particularly fascinated with the phrase, the ring of truth, something that sounds true but is not definitively true. I can argue that great novels have the ring of truth even when they are entirely made up. And I think fiction writers are tasked with inventing true worlds if they are going to be taken seriously.
An odd thing, intentionally inventing a truth with no basis in reality. But what we are doing when we attempt that is causing a suspension of disbelief. It’s a powerful tactic that when pulled off brings readers back for more.
Great fantasists excel at this. There is a reason Tolkien’s writing is so popular and so embedded in our popular mythology despite being completely made up malarkey. We want to believe it’s true and he gave us very convincing worlds and characters, including entire languages, maps, and whole societies.
Remarkable, when you think about it.
Even more remarkable when you consider the comments of one of the actors in the acclaimed film versions of The Lord of the Rings. He pointed out that no one speaks in dialog like the dialog in the book. He found it nearly impossible to say a lot of Tolkien’s lines. Nevertheless we lose ourselves in it. Millions of us.
Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, is known for his contemporary magic realism, stories where the fantastic takes place in ways that just read as the normal way of things. Cats unexpectedly talk and characters respond as though that is a little odd but why not?
I more than dabbled in this in my first novel. My character crosses a threshold into some kind of parallel reality over and over again, discovering a capability in himself he was unaware of.
This posed an interesting challenge: to have the reader share his response of not believing it but not being able to deny it. A kind of stage magic trick disguised as ordinary reality when it is far far from it.
But fiction writers make things up. What about something like an opinion writer, which is my bread and butter? If I express an opinion, my opinion, about a topic, to be successful I have to accomplish two things. It has to be plausible, that ring of truth thing, and my readers have to want to believe it, even if they may harbor doubts.
It has to be compelling on multiple levels and this can require subtlety, that same balancing act between belief and the suspension of disbelief. I have to believe myself as I write the words and my belief must be solid and true enough that readers might find truth in it for themselves.
I don’t much like clever or glib writing, especially when writing about the real world and powerful subjects. Those things require passion and using cleverness dilutes passion into mere showing off or insult, the lowest form of opinion.
But I certainly have taken that route when faced with writing about the particularly absurd world of contemporary politics, which constantly borders on magical thinking and outright lies. It’s hard not to be cynical in the face of a lot of that stuff.
Truth, a writing topic with a lot of angles and rings.
Truth is often accompanied by fear. The truth can be extremely scary, especially when it either turns your worldview upside down, or delves into places the reader may be avoiding because they fear the truth they may encounter.
You, the writer, have an awesome responsibility to either tell the truth or make up one we want to believe. Yikes. But that is actually the truth.
We’re the first reader we have to convince. Tolkien took himself into the Mines of Moria with his characters. He heard the drumming that told them they were not alone. And he brought us along, those of us who willingly surrendered to his world for an hour or two.
Pretty cool stuff, but more than a little crazy too. One of the best things about being a writer.
The Coffee Test (Wozniak)
A machine is required to enter an average American home and figure out how to make coffee: find the coffee machine, find the coffee, add water, find a mug, and brew the coffee by pushing the proper buttons. This has not yet been completed.
~ Wikipedia, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) entry
I’m taking a layman’s approach to AI. The above, from Apple co-founder and chief nerd of the planet, Steve Wozniak, is from a list of tests devised to determine if a computer is sentient.
The Turing test, devised by computer pioneer Alan Turing, is the classic example. A conversation is held between a computer and a human while a second human listens without knowing which is which. If the observer cannot tell who is the computer, sentience is defined.
The concept of sentience is one that fascinated me, in part because it is an important and controversial one in Buddhism. Sentience can be broadly defined as self-awareness. Which is probably hopelessly simplistic, but I am not inclined to philosophizing about stuff like that.
Can a rock be sentient? Who knows? We have no test for that. Get to work Woz.
Speculation about things we cannot know, like what happens when we die, is a favorite topic for writers. In fact it is a huge fiction category, speculative fiction, more popularly known as science fiction. As a writer I like to dip into near future speculation in my opinion writing. But I never portray my ideas as reality, they are idea games, what ifs.
The what if game is at the heart of a lot of writing; you might argue it is at the heart of all of it. Even scientific papers, which always start with a theory, pure speculation which the research goes on to prove, cast doubt on, or disprove.
It’s an interesting idea as a writing technique to look at where we use the what if game. In fiction it’s the whole game, even with historical fiction which often claims a kind of quasi accuracy, except any historian will tell you history is almost entirely speculation.
We can’t know what life in ancient Egypt was really like just because we can read hieroglyphs.
This kind of examination of storytelling, which probably encompasses all writing, can be a fascinating part of being a writer. But I’d caution against thinking about it as you write, or worse, before you write.
For me, at least, the act of writing is stepping into the unknown and following whatever path you find, even with non-fiction, maybe even especially with non-fiction because great non-fiction writing always shows us a different angle from our own.
Think Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell.
The holiday has me a little behind on this newsletter. It’s Sunday afternoon and I usually try to schedule it to be delivered just after midnight on a Saturday night. This one may not go out until tonight, but that’s ok because I’m the boss of this thing!
Gotta love that.
I’ve set schedules for publishing most of my writing, spreading out the newsletters so I don’t go nuts or repeat myself too much, and publishing the topical stuff based on its relevancy- a lot of that needs to go out the day I write it because of context.
How much writing do you have to do to call yourself a writer? It’s a stupid question. There are great novelists who go decades between books. Others crank stuff out at alarming rates. The French crime novelist Simonen wrote a book every month for years.
Crime and mystery novelists tend to be prolific, maybe because each story triggers more ideas and angles for another.
I’ve always been prolific but not at that level, though now I can understand how people do it. I never expected to find myself writing a thousand or more words daily, seven days a week. But that is where I find myself these days and it feels natural.
If that changes, I like to think I’ll be ok with it but I have to admit that it is addictive. And I have an addictive personality.
Did you write today?
~ I write The Grasshopper, a letter for creatives, The Witness Chronicles, a weekly digest of three of my articles on politics and climate, and The Remarkable, a recovery letter, about my addiction and reentry experience. All are weekly and free with a paid option to share support. Please check them out.
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Believe me, it makes my day. M
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