Writer's Rehab #27: Reality is not a Truth

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I finished this book recently, and for those in the know, this was one of the book I pulled myself back from the brink of stopping forever with. Not to be a drama queen, but you get to a point where you have lost everything and you know you need to make a major change - so you pick a direction and just go.

With this book in my hand I took my first steps back.

The middle I feel is muddled, and it wanders aimlessly through the forest of character and dialog, plot and complexity, and I feel it stumbles there in the middle coming off a very strong couple of chapters on detail. to be fair, I put my subscription card for Penthouse Letters right back there in the middle where I felt the book wandered and I will get back into that some day. Not now, and I need to move on and reflect a little. The book ends strongly on one assumption:

Truth is of higher value than realism.

If you don't read the book, this is a meaningless and simple statement. Well, of course! I mean, yes, by all means, truth! Yes. That. I agree.

She blinks like the reader has no idea of what she just meant.

My fault, let me explain.

Truth. The trueness of feeling and honest experience that is imparted by the writer's words, means a whole lot more than any measure of photographic realism. I could sit here like a military fiction writer and recite to you the diameter of a torpedo and how fast it moves underwater like something out of The Hunt for Red October and those are just facts. I could state to you the exact method in which the weapon is used, down to what button opens what door, and what lever fires what torpedo tube, and those are just facts.

There has to be something more.

What does the sound of the torpedo's homing sonar sound like when it hits the steel hull of its target? What is it like to sit silently in a tube of pressurized steel with forty other men and women as a weapon of mechanical death pings and swims and slowly hunts the depths of the black cold ocean for you? What do the pops and creaks of the metal hull sound like when the ship descends into the depth, how the entire ship tilts downwards towards a deadly crushing doom point from which you cannot recover - and the pressure increases all around you and presses in on every hull plate, joint, and rivet in the ship? What fears do you see in the other sailor's eyes as they fight a battle of silence and instant death?

Facts are not truth, but they are a part of it.

The second paragraph there shows more than facts, it shows the synthesis of an experience and facts that connects with a reader. It shows a depth of feeling and a deeper understanding of what it is to be there, in that place, with those characters, and you could imagine yourself there with them.

And it is not just cold, hard mechanical data that lends itself to reality versus truth. What is it like to write a powerful death scene? Does it seem hammed up, like some movie where the gangster clutches his chest and says, "You got me, copper!"

Or is it a more holistic and powerful experience where the sounds of the world are turned off, and the gangster feels the life leaving his chest in a warm flow of blood, and he thinks back to his elementary school days where he was the most picked on kid on the playground. He watches the G-Men walk up to him talking among themselves, not aware of their words, as they kick his gun away and look down with a mixture of relief and determined pity. Does the gangster not see that, and he is still on that playground getting his toys kicked away, beaten, laughed at, and his eyes steaming with tears, telling the other kids, "You are never gonna pick on me like that again! You'll see!"

And his last thoughts are of the girl he never got a chance to say hello to. That girl in the bijou who gave him a coy smile and looked away so sweetly, and he never built up the courage to say hello because he was afraid of her 'beating up his heart' by rejecting him.

And the next words we hear are the G-Man's, "He's gone. Cover him up."


The death scene as truth. Not facts or cliche, but something honest and meaningful, deep and emotionally powerful. This wasn't realism, where he gets shot and loses one pint of blood a second, crumples to the ground, and we get this videotape-like reproduction of the events like some reality TV show. Not this, this one is a reflection of what we feel along with trying to give the reader something more than a bland recitation of the facts and what happened.

The truth is more than reality. It brings meaning to it. It connects reality with the facts, and tells the reader why these facts are so important. Someone's aunt could die. Great. But if we show a life and a person crying and that deeper meaning of why that loss hurt so much, that is more than reality.

That is a truth.

A truth, of course, is always based in a perspective, but when we read we like to experience perspectives - not just dictionary-like facts. There is a difference between being inside someone's head and being a headless camera that just records what's there.

What is there has to mean something more.

Part of the problem of today's world is that we focus on facts and not truths. To focus on truths though, you have to give the other side some room and understand that not everyone may see something the same way or think like you do. Instead, we take the words of other people and mindlessly spread facts, when we should dig deeper, read books, understand history, and find truths - together. With some wiggle room to understand that not everyone may see something the same way, but there are truths here and truths there that we can agree on, and then find ways to live together on truths we do not agree on.

Peace is a truth that most want. Can we find a way to that together? Or shall it be my facts versus yours? You know where this leads, don't you?

We need to get beyond opposing and mechanical facts and find that something more. I feel these truths shall be in our hearts, because it is in our hearts is where the understanding of meaning lies.

And in this, we bring a piece of ourselves to bring meaning to the dry and bland facts and simple reflections of reality.

There has to be that artistic interpretation there between reality and truth. Your words are the artist's brush that keeps your painting from being something more than a simple and procedural photograph of a place, a person, or an event.

Your words are the truthful eyes in which you relate a sometimes meaningless reality through the feelings in your heart.