Friday, September 3, 2010

Telling the Truth in Fiction

My students surprised me year after year with the same question: is this [story, novel, essay, article] true? They wanted to know if the story unfolding sprang from fact. Somehow, they always seemed disappointed if the story were classified as fiction.

For me, the appeal of literature is its roots in fact, truth, or reality. This characteristic of literature, known as verisimilitude, derives from two Latin words: verum (truth) and similitude (resemblance, likeness). In other words, verisimilitude means that literature resembles the truth. As a self-portrait resembles the artist, literature resembles the human experience.

Thus, when I read, I expect to read truth--not the truth as it actually happened to someone in particular--but truth nevertheless. I expect the writer to hold up a mirror to the human race and capture its mannerisms, behaviors, feelings, and interactions. I expect to meet people and places that are true even if they do not exist.

Not to expect that from fiction is to misunderstand the role and significance of literature. So, as a teacher, I labored to let my students know about verisimilitude with pre-reading activities, side notes, comments, and historical documents.

For example, to introduce Beowulf, I shared snippets from Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, a work that Crichton did not pluck from the air. He used Fraus-Dolus’ translation of extant fragments from Ibn Fadlan’s journal, written while living among and traveling with Vikings. Initially the crude, brutish ways of the Northmen repulse the fastidious Arab, but over time, he celebrates their courage and brotherhood in a story that parallels the English epic, Beowulf.

Crichton blends fact and conjecture to create a novel about hardship, cultural shocks, social customs, brotherhood, and courage. Each is part of the human experience even if the time is not the Viking era and even if the place is not cold northern regions. Thus, Crichton’s novel is timeless or universal, and it has the quality of verisimilitude.

That is Macrorie’s intention when he insists that “fabulous realities” become “case histories” that reveal a truth (see previous post for August 27, 2010). Macrorie simply requires truth in writing. That is what readers expect and that is what writers must deliver, but . . . .

Sometimes the truth is not the stand-straight, swear-on-a-stack-of-Bibles truth. Sometimes the truth is a little bit fact, some mirror images, and a lot of pure conjecture. Verisimilitude is the goal because the truth cannot be found easily.

Consider a day in your life. If you were to recount the events of your day, filled with routine, chores, embarrassment, losses, and some insignificance, your story might be boring and lack a point (a truth). If, on the other hand, you edited the detritus, preserving only the moments and interactions that resonate with the notes from your past, then you might have a tale to tell, one that could hold the attention of your listener.

That is what a writer does. He and she eliminate unnecessary details while re-ordering the ways in which we grow to understand the human experience so that we readers can recognize the catalyst and conditions for growth. A writer does what living, experiencing and aging do for us, but a writer provides this wisdom to us in the form of stories, novels, essays, or plays long before our hair has begun to lose its lights and our joints ache from carrying the burden of gravity

So as you transform your own personal, reflective journals into “case histories,” you may find that you need to embellish or alter the actual sequence of events so that a reader can follow the thread to a truth. Many, many wonderful writers have transformed the actual truth into telling truths. I invite you to read those listed below. Their stories are not the facts, the sole facts, and nothing but the facts, but their stories are the truth.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Reviewing punctuation for compound sentences and reminding GUM enthusiasts (are there any?) about punctuation for complex sentences (lesson on August 20, 2010).

I will dance and sing tonight at my sister’s wedding.

At my sister’s wedding tonight, I will dance, and I will sing.

First, notice the absence of punctuation separating clauses or phrases in the sentence, I will dance and sing tonight at my sister’s wedding. The phrase “at my sister’s wedding” follows the independent clause so it should not begin with a comma after “tonight.” In addition, the first sentence is only a single sentence with compound (two) verbs, “dance” and “sing.”

The second sentence, however, opens with an introductory prepositional phrase of four words, “at my sister’s wedding.” When the dependent clause (or phrase) precedes the independent clause, separate the two with a comma--as shown above. In addition, the second sentence contains two complete sentences: “I will dance” and “I will sing.” When joining two independent clauses (complete sentences) with a coordinating conjunction such as “and,” place a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

All clear? I hope so. Go forth and punctuate well.

Reading Challenge:

1. For humor and a few belly laughs, read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (the short stories that became a favorite Christmas movie, A Christmas Story)
2. For historical fiction, read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, an account of the Battle at Gettysburg, July, 1863, based upon letters, news articles, biographies, and conjecture
3. Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, a tale of the Vikings and a hero called Buliwyf (the film version of this novel, The 13th Warrior, stars Antonio Banderas)
4. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about young men serving in Vietnam
5. Any one of Shakespeare’s plays or a collection of his sonnets for insights into love, tyranny, errors in judgment, life’s purpose, and death

Writing Challenge:

Embellish upon one of your own journal entries or combine several. Change names to protect the guilty, season with conjecture, and write a mirror for the human experience.