Truth-Telling In Fiction

by Trish

in Learning the Craft, Write Now

(via Flickr)

I’m going to wax poetic on the use of idea and morality in a novel’s theme.

Janet Burroway is one of the most esteemed teachers of fiction (and a published author) and her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is well-thumbed in this writer’s house. I recently reread it and was struck by several sections, including the section on theme.

Burroway writes:

Literature is stuck with ideas in a way other arts are not. Music, paradoxically the most abstract of the arts, creates a logical structure that need make no reference to the world outside itself. It may express a mood, but it need not draw any conclusions. Shapes in painting and sculpture may suggest forms in the physical world, but they need not represent the world, and they need not contain a message. But words mean, and the grammatical structure of even the simplest sentence contains a concept.

Flannery O’Connor writes:

Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

John Ciardi writes:

Literature is never only about ideas, but about the experience of ideas.

T. S. Eliot writes:

We talk as if thought was precise and emotion was vague. In reality there is precise emotion and there is vague emotion. To express precise emotion requires as great intellectual power as to express precise thought.

Burroway again:

There is a curious prejudice built into our language that makes us speak of telling the truth but telling a lie. No one supposes that all conceivable falsehood can be wrapped up in a single statement called “the lie”; lies are manifold, varied, and specific. But truth is supposed to be absolute: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is, of course, impossible nonsense, and telling a lie is a truer phrase than telling the truth. Fiction does not have to tell the truth, but a truth.

Anton Chekov writes:

. . . the writer of fiction should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, and so forth. What is obligatory for the artist is not solving a problem, but stating a problem correctly.

Burroway finishes:

A story, then, speculates on a possible truth. It is not an answer or a law but a supposition, an exploration. Every story reaches in its climax and resolution an interim solution to a specifically realized dilemma. But it offers no ultimate solution.

And this:

Fine writing expands our scope by continually presenting a new way of seeing, a further possibility of emotional identification; it flatly refuses to become a law. I am not a Roman Catholic like Gerard Manley Hopkins and cannot be persuaded by his poetry to become one; but in a moment near despair I can drive along an Illinois street in a Chevrolet station wagon and take strength from the lines of a Jesuit in the Welsh wasteland. I am not a communist as Bertolt Brecht was and cannot be convinced by his plays to become one; but I can see the hauteur of wealth displayed on the Gulf of Mexico and recognize, from a parable of the German Marxist, the difference between a possession and a belonging.

Excellent words. I am pondering them as I begin this month of Nanowrimo.

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