Writing Honestly

Lauren and I went to the movies on Friday and saw Woody Allen’s new flick, Midnight in Paris, on Friday. It’s an absolutely charming literary fantasy about love, identity, writing, and art. And it’s really funny.

Driving home, I was thinking about all those great writers–Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, et. al. who defined literature in the 20th century. Hearing Hemingway alive and speaking on-screen, it was like hearing a force of nature. It got me thinking about the power of literature to tell the truth, to shape us as humans.

Hemingway said: All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.

He also said: That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best – make it all up – but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.

As a writer, you hope that you can speak that kind of truth, the kind where the only way to get at is to make up lies–fiction–that is somehow truer than reality.

Sometimes, as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I worry that I’ll become too focused on writing fun stories with big-ass swords, and that I risk losing out on those greater truths for which fiction can reach. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with stories that are all about being fun to read. But on some level, you want to believe that what you’re working for, sweating for over years, is going to be something more than a few hours of entertainment for someone, a few hours of distraction.

You want to be able to touch people, to move people in the way that I am moved when you read stories that contain those deep human truth, and that are written in such away to allow those truths to emerge through the story (as opposed to striking the reader over the head with them). You want to sweep your reader away to another world that is so true, characters that are so honest, that the reader is moved, horrified, in love, or in some way affected.

I hope that I can reach past the point of sheer entertainment in my writing. It’s something I certainly strive for, and something that I believe transcends genre boundaries. Each genre–literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or otherwise–has some things that it excels at that other genres cannot achieve as effectively, but each genre should be able to allow those kinds of truths to come through.

I believe that kind of truth can come through writing, no matter the genre, if the writing is honest. Look at Tolkien, Chandler, Dick, LeGuin. Great writing always holds up a mirror, and in that mirror we see ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether that self is on a distant planet or in post-war Spain.

But what does it mean for writing to be honest? What is it to write honestly?

Different people might answer this question in different ways. As Lauren and I discussed this, I think (and I think she would agree with me), that one answer is that honesty arises from an honest portrayal of characters.

Characters, as much as we want them to be people, are not people. They are the manifestation of ideas, motives, beliefs. And yet they are like people, which is why we become so attached to them.

When the writer has the correct characters in the story, and he lets those characters act with authenticity out of their own natures, which are the ideas, motives, and beliefs that drive them, then I think that truth can emerge. It emerges when the character, who has been an honest manifestation of those beliefs, motives, and ideals, is placed in crisis. Suddenly, in crisis, the central idea of the character is on the line. What the character does in those moments is honest, as honest as the real moments of crisis and suffering that each of us experiences in our own lives, when the way that we look at ourselves and define ourselves is on the line.

As a writer, I can only hope that I can get my own personal notions about what *should* happen in the story out of the way long enough to allow the characters to act with that authenticity.

I feel like, if I can do that, then I’m honoring the people who spend their time reading my stories. That, if I strive for honesty in the story through authenticity of characters, then my readers will have that experience that the story was truer than if it had really happened.

And that is the most that any writer can hope for and struggle towards.


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