No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. —Robert Frost (1874–1963), U.S. poet.
Readers want truth. We read “how to” articles to learn things—not false things, but true things. We want to learn the truth about products and services—not some BS marketing hype. If we read something stupid or plain-outright implausible, we shout “Come on!” and slam the book shut.
~Fiction and nonfiction: The truth can be found in both.
~Writing truth: Using their “built-in, shock-proof BS detector,’’ writers should write to discover what they didn’t know they knew.
~The creative imperative: Many artists have found that you cannot plan for greatness; you must go with the flow. If you focus on the truth, the rest will follow.
Dull writing simply does not have enough truth in it to keep us going—or it does not present truth in fresh ways. We all adore the idea that love conquers all, for instance, but we like to be reminded of it from new angles. The books and movies in The Twilight Saga or Anna Karenina show love conquering all, but in very different ways. If you like one of them, to you, it’s meaningful, fresh, truthful.
Fiction and nonfiction
Nonfiction: Some people assume that nonfiction is all things true and that fiction is all made up and essentially a lie. Neither statement is true.
Nonfiction often rearranges events, corrects quotes, drops people or actions so as not to confuse things, and generally cleans things up. Even if an interviewer tapes a conversation, words such as “you know,” “um,” “ah,” and other needless expressions are often deleted, and sometimes the interviewees have a chance to rewrite their quotes to clarify what they meant.
Is all this restructuring untruthful because that’s not the way it really happened? No, if it’s done in the name of clarity. Meaning is what’s important. After a good interview, I leave with more than just words on a tape recorder. I was with that person live. I sensed body language and took in gestures. More came across than just the words, and my written interview is an attempt to get that meaning across. Anything that clouds clarity needs to be eliminated.
Fiction, on the other hand, can have characters created from nowhere, in places that are made up, saying things that are new even to the writer. Great fiction, at heart, however, reveals truth in far greater detail and clarity than anything else. Indelible characters such as Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men,
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, of course, movie heroes and villains such as Luke Skywalker, Hannibal Lector, and Thelma and Louise have all been made up. Even so, they touch people. They have truth.
I popped onto Amazon.com to look at readers’ responses to Of Mice and Men. Here’s what one person from Pittsburgh wrote: “I am 14 years old and read Of Mice and Men for my 8th grade literature class. I usually don’t like sad books, but this is definitely an exception. This is a tragic tale of friendship, love, and sacrifice, and I am crying just thinking about the end. Steinbeck tells life as it was in the ‘30s, never making life perfect and easy. My class and I watched the movie in class, and no one had dry eyes at the end. This book is not to be missed by anyone.”
Another person from Pittsburgh, but originally from Thailand, wrote, “I read this book both in English and in my language version. I’ve been moved by the truth behind this tragic story.”
There’s that word again, truth. Whatever story you love, the truth of it touches you. It matches, somehow, your perceptions of life.
It can be difficult to write truth. It’s a never-ending struggle for me because what seems truthful one day can seem false or strained when I read it later. I don’t see this as a problem, though, but simply one way to filter out the less-than-best. Things that pass muster upon reflection are more likely to be truthful.
Ernest Hemingway said in a 1954 interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built- in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar, and all great writers have it.” Not only does that sound like something Hemingway would say, but it is also the truth.
Don’t mistake “truth” for “telling a deep, dark secret.” Not everyone has a pile of such secrets to unravel for each article or story. While such secrets are indeed an aspect of truth, I’m not suggesting great writing is the admission of some past sin. Perhaps such an idea is related to the false notion that writers have to suffer for art. If so, then I would have to admit to being hampered with a happy childhood. I felt love. (May every writer be burdened with happy memories.)
One thing some people don’t understand about writers: Writers don’t have the great verities on a silver platter before them. The great insights are not a fortune cookie away. (“Ah, ‘Power corrupts,’ my cookie says. I’ll use that for my next novel.”)
Most writers I know sit day after day before a blank screen or page not to spout off what they know but to discover what they didn’t know they knew.
Writing is a way to think, to explore. I sometimes write things I simply did not expect. It stuns me. Your own writing should often surprise you.
I suffered through writing essays in high school because I felt I needed to know exactly what I was going to put on paper before I wrote it. Only later did I let myself into the flow of the universe and allow happenstance to occur. I find when I’m working on a project, such as my play
that takes place on a boat lost at sea, I stumble across things on the radio, from billboards, from my friends at dinner, and from elsewhere—things that seem to magically fit in with what I’m writing.
Let yourself be open to the spontaneous.
The creative imperative
Some years ago I started a book of interviews that I called The Creative Imperative. I recorded my conversations with a number of different artists, such as dancers, photographers, musicians, actors, directors, painters, animators, filmmakers, puppeteers, and writers. I wanted to discover if there was something in common among all artists, and I found that people talked about a sensitivity to the immediate moment, to “the flow.”
For example, I interviewed my friend and writer Robert E. Lee before he died. He and Jerome Lawrence wrote plays such as Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame, and The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. Robert Lee said, “I am a Prince of Serendip. I believe that you happen onto things, and if they are right, they fall together with a richer effect than any much-mulled plan might provide…. How many senses do you have? Five, right? You have five avenues by which stimuli can reach you. Then you have been gifted with a body and a mind which can absorb this information, process it, metabolize it into poetry, into revelation, or, if you like, into art.”
He said, however, you cannot focus on creating “Art” with a capital “A.” That is, you cannot plan for greatness. The writer or artist “cannot know what he or she’s doing. And the more people let themselves be bugged about ‘Art,’ the more trouble they make for themselves. The more they try to extrapolate rules and reasons for what they’re doing, the more they diminish the exuberance of what they do!”
In short, if you focus on the truth, the rest will follow.
If you write and edit with a sense of honesty, you will often find the words and structure you need. This isn’t to say that outlines and all the other tools writers have should be thrown out the window. Rather, with tools you have, be like a walker on a wire: Feel the moment and constantly adjust. Good things might happen.