“Truth” is a word that has been taking a beating for quite a long time now, but in the last year, it has been used and abused with a fervor unmatched in my memory.
First absolute truth got roughed up in this age of relativism, the belief that there are no absolute truths, but only truth relative to a person and situation. Then, truth became personal – it’s true because I believe it to be true. If you don’t, well then, you’re lying. Even its corollary definition “to be true” (loyal) fell into that same hole: If I believe something, then you will stand with me to show you are “true.”
Then, just when it seemed “truth” couldn’t sink any lower or become more ambiguous, enter the 2016 presidential campaign.
I have been silent on this blog (and most social media) for several months due to the campaign. The job of the artist isn’t to capture the events as they happen but to look for the paths through the aftermath, to find the meaning in what occurs, strengthen what remains and help reconstruct (or build anew) what has been broken. So, the American part of me participated in the election, but the writer in me watched and listened.
But since October, I knew that upon my return to this blog, my first subject was going to be truth: the artistic sense of truth.
Every artist must interpret truth as he or she sees fit, so in that way, artistic truth has always been relative. To a point. But there is a deeper truth, what I call a “core truth” – truth that is at the core of who we are as people, in all of our wisdom and stupidity, our nobility and our cruelty, our love and our indifference. Writers who don’t try to connect with core truth in every story or poem they write will never achieve what they want to achieve.
So how do we find this artistic truth?
It starts with recognizing our own unique vision of the world. We need to sense or feel what it is we most want to write about and then cast it into its proper mold: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or script. Then, the hard work begins. We have to dig into what’s below our characters and voices even while we’re creating their situations and surroundings above ground.
I recently read Natasha Threthewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. It is poetry that imagines the story of a prostitute that Bellocq photographed in his famous, pre-World War I series in New Orleans. What’s so striking about these poems is how straight-forward and “prose-like” the writing is. Threthewey is a fantastic poet who can put sounds together in a poem that will steal your breath, but here, she goes for a spare, matter-of-fact style that reveals Ophelia’s core truth.
The following is an excerpt from the poem entitled “January 1911.” To better make my point, I’ve rendered the excerpt as prose, without poetic line breaks:
Perhaps you are too delicate to know of my life here. Still, you remain my dearest friend and should not worry that I won’t write. I know your own simple means prevent you from helping me as you would like. Help me only as you already do – with the words I crave, the mundane details of your quiet life.
Prostitutes are mostly viewed as either a blight on society or a commodity to be used, but these lines show us something quite different: core truth. Ophelia accepts her situation but still experiences the strong desire to have her friend’s “quiet” life. Deeper still, Ophelia is expressing her need to stay connected to an old friend and is asking that the friend do the same. In fact, the first line “Perhaps you are too delicate to know of my life here” is stated with no small degree of fear. Would her friend abandon Ophelia now that she’s a prostitute? The sub-text is clear: “Nothing has changed,” Ophelia is saying. “I’m still me, and we’re still us, no matter what our life situations are.”
What Threthewey has accomplished here is to present a woman seen to be in a disastrous situation and shows us the core truth about her – that she still has the same needs we all do. No matter what external events happen to us – or the reason why they happen — there are connections all human beings harbor and inner needs that all human beings seek to have met.
Good writing presents to the reader the external conflict between characters AND an internal core truth of those characters. Without a well-developed external character, you end up with solipsistic people populating your stories, what one editor accurately describes as “navel-gazers.” Conversely, if you don’t reveal an internal core truth in your character(s), the story will end up being (and sounding, to your readers) hollow.
Even if you are a genre writer, you must strive to develop both sides of the character. What makes Robert Parker’s detective Spenser so compelling isn’t just his toughness or his wise-cracking friendship with Hawk, but his own unique code of ethics and the way he gauges his life so that he doesn’t diverge from that code and lose himself. What makes Charles De Lint’s artist Jilly so loveable is that she feels the heart and magic in every person, animal, and thing she encounters and always acts with an awareness of that heart, even when it gets her in trouble.
Core truth is what lies beneath our professions, our politics, our race, our gender, and all the other trappings of the physical world. That truth can’t be distorted and it can’t be denied by writers if we want our characters and our stories to reach their fullest fruition.