Many years ago, my friend Daniel, who’s a journalist, said something that’s stayed with me. “Reporters write about facts,” he said. “Novelists write about truth.”
We’re now living in a world where the expression “alternative facts” somehow has inexplicably managed to enter our vocabularies as A Thing, so the facts/truth divide is a question I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about.
We all lie sometimes. Social lies, little white lies… my father was a diplomat, and I learned at an early age to listen and interpret when I heard people say things I knew to be false. “Think about the why,” he told me often, and that reminder has stood me in good stead. I’ve always lied when it’s the kinder thing to do; and the few people I know who pride themselves on never lying are often needlessly unkind due to their rigid “moral” stance around it.
But those are everyday social situations. The question here is: does fiction lie?
Well, in a sense, yes. Novelists use lies to communicate true things. We’re creating situations that never happened to people who never existed in a place no one will ever see, and all of it in order to convey truths about love, loyalty, sacrifice, joy, despair… in other words, truths about humanity.
The fact that these truths are wrapped up in a story is what gives them power. It contextualizes them and shows, sometimes dramatically, what they mean to us. Stories weave emotions into situations and create characters which-if the writer knows what they’re doing-we come to care deeply about. A male reader said to me recently, “I loved your book (Our Lady of the Dunes), but you broke my heart at the end.” (I specify male, because men are still socialized to not say that sort of thing, which made it even more touching.) I thought that was the most thrilling compliment, far more meaningful than when I’m told people like my writing. The writing is the tool, and at its best it’s invisible: it’s in the story that the magic happens.
And yet, paradoxically, even as fiction lies, it also has to be honest. And this is where the challenge comes in. As a novelist, I need to be honest about what matters, about the core of the story, and that’s challenging because it’s the literary equivalent of walking naked down the street. It’s revealing. It’s opening myself to everything I fear: ridicule, criticism, rejection. In order for a story to work, to convey its truths, I have to show too much of myself in the process.
Again, I’m not talking about facts. Very few facts from my life experiences have entered my fiction-frankly, my life truly isn’t that interesting. But I’ve given my characters one hundred percent of who I am. I’ve faced feelings and memories I haven’t wanted to face, something that writing and therapy apparently have in common. But my lies, my stories, are as real and honest as I can make them, and I know I’ve achieved that honesty when I see people reacting to them as if they were real.
And that’s where the real magic of fiction lies: it gives you something you can carry in your heart.
Originally published at https://www.jeannettedebeauvoir.com on December 7, 2020.