Writing Right with Dmitri: To Tell the Truth
What is truth?
Pontius Pilatus, John 17:38
Well, o praefecte, if you don't know the truth when it's staring you lovingly in the face, we don't know how to help you. . . But for the rest of youze guys, we've got some tips.
Just now, I discovered a great little ad put out by CNN, the US news organisation. It consists of a picture of an apple, some text, and a voiceover. Watch it: it'll take you thirty seconds, and it's worth it. The gist, for those of you who don't click: This is an apple. No matter who tries to tell you it's a banana, or what strategies they use, it's still an apple. Facts first.
In case you've been living under a rock for the past year: CNN made this ad to counter a very determined Twitter campaign in their direction by the current occupant of the White House. The US president regularly refers to CNN as 'fake news'. CNN is a dedicated news organisation, whose reporters resent the implications that they went to school, worked their way up in journalism by covering boring city council meetings, and risked their lives in various political hotspots, only to get a corner office in Atlanta and ask, 'What story shall we make up about the Republicans today?'
Srsly, as they say. This resentment would surely go for other newspeople, such as NPR's Anne Garrels, who devised possibly the most daring strategy you've ever heard of to get her radio stories out during the invasion of Iraq. She was in a room of the Palestine Hotel, you see, with bombs whistling around the building, and the ever-present fear that local authorities would come in and stop her from broadcasting. Her memoir is called Naked in Baghdad. Radio, remember? Now, don't you call people like that 'fake news'. They worked hard to tell the truth, dammit. And so should we.
How does that apply to us? After all, a lot of my readers here are fiction writers. So the 'fake news' label doesn't apply. As for writing Guide Entries, heck: we get our facts online, right? Or from reference books? Does the question of determining and conveying truth even enter into it? Oh, yes, friends, it does. Big-time.
How Not to Tell the Truth
First, here's how not to tell the truth:
"Faithful friend, noble heart!" said the king, "I should not have been rescued. I have addressed my people and I have spoken to God; last of all I speak to you. To maintain a cause which I believed sacred I have lost the throne and my children their inheritance. A million in gold remains; it is buried in the cellars of Newcastle Keep. You only know that this money exists. Make use of it, then, whenever you think it will be most useful, for my eldest son’s welfare. And now, farewell."
"Farewell, saintly, martyred majesty," lisped Athos, chilled with terror.
A moment’s silence ensued and then, in a full, sonorous voice, the king exclaimed:
He had scarcely uttered the word when a heavy blow shook the scaffold and where Athos stood immovable a warm drop fell upon his brow. He reeled back with a shudder and the same moment the drops became a crimson cataract.
Athos fell on his knees and remained some minutes as if bewildered or stunned. At last he rose and taking his handkerchief steeped it in the blood of the martyred king. Then as the crowd gradually dispersed he leaped down, crept from behind the drapery, glided between two horses, mingled with the crowd and was the first to arrive at the inn.
Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After
This is, frankly, awful. I read it as a young teenager – I was mad for the D'Artagnan novels – and formed a very skewed view of the English Civil War because of this. But even then, I sort of wondered about the 'saintly, martyred majesty' business. . . Really, people?
Now, I'm not saying, 'Don't exaggerate historical scenes because some schoolkid might read it for homework,' although in the case of Guide Entries that is absolutely possible. (We have empirical evidence that we are used for homework and such.) But I am saying that you should take into account the possibility that what you write may very well influence the way a reader thinks about a subject. In other words: all writing is persuasive, whether that was your primary intent or not.
How to Tell the Truth
Here's how to tell the truth:
- Ask the right questions. Make sure you've got the facts, as best you can know them. Do the research.
- Communicate as clearly as you know how. Don't dodge or use weasel words.
- Don’t expect the reader to know what you know, or think the way you think. Take time for explanations.
- Fill in relevant background. Set the scene. Make the thinking transparent. This is necessary, even if your story's made-up. As your teacher said, show your work. Let people follow along with your characters, or the events you describe.
- Don't make bogus leaps in logic. Don't say, 'Oh, you know what I mean.'
- Don't create false dichotomies. Eschew the creation of straw men.
That last suggestion is important, I think. The other night, I watched a film called Amnesia. It took place on the island of Ibiza. The main characters were an older German woman named Marthe and a young German man called Jo. The two were living on Ibiza for completely different reasons. Marthe wanted to get as far away from Germany as possible, because she rejected the Nazi past. Jo, who thought the Nazi era had nothing to do with him, wanted to make a name for himself as a techno deejay in Ibiza's tourist spots.
The movie was well-acted and lovingly filmed, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. The argument that came about when Jo's family shows up for a visit was authentic, but shallow. The question was, how to deal with the evil past. Jo's grandfather tells many different versions of his reluctant participation in the Holocaust, while his daughter, Jo's mother, makes excuses for her 'selective amnesia'. Jo is shocked by the revelation that his grandfather's charges in the factory had all died or suffered violence, but in the end, he goes happily back to his techno music. Marthe overcomes her reluctance to visit Germany in order to settle her family's affairs. Nothing is really solved. How could it be? Nobody asked the right questions, and nobody told the truth.
Why is it important for us to be truth-tellers in our writing? For one thing, far too many people get their 'truth' at second-hand, from what they hear, read, and see. You have a responsibility to help them find things out. That responsibility is one you cannot dodge by saying, 'Everyone else is doing it,' or 'I don't feel like setting a good example.' If writers don't, who will?
That's not to say that we're all-knowing. We know better than that. But writers are witnesses – to what they see around them, to what they find out by searching, to the process going on in their heads. Think about that this November: whatever you write, let it be as true as you can make it.