Truth in Fiction: Or, Should We Write What We Know?

Write what you know.  This seems a clichéd bit of advice, no?

Students often ask me if I write what I know or if what I write is “true.”  Goodness, I hope not.  I frequently write about dissatisfied, questioning narrators who seek meaning in an otherwise chaotic or uncertain world.  Beyond that, I often borrowed from magical realism, and so, uh, no, I did not, as in one of my stories, have a son who drowned in a river only to come back to life as a fish.  In fact, I don’t even have a son.

But still—I don’t think this answer—this “no, no my fiction is not true”—ever seems quite accurate.  And so I often return to this question about truth in fiction.  Is fiction true?  Is it truer than nonfiction?  Is it truer, somehow, than real life?

These are some lofty questions.

I can’t help but return to Marianne Moore’s famous dictum that poetry is the “art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.”  Of course, we can easily see how this applies to the craft of writing fiction. We have to create a world so well-drawn that it feels real, that to the reader it is real.  The toads must become real, tangible things, croaking and jumping and doing whatever it is toads do.  (Wart-growing? Seeking out Princesses to kiss?) If it looks like a toad and jumps like a toad and is a toad, is it a real toad?  Isn’t this toad just as real as a toad you’d find in your back yard?

If the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble tell us anything, no, fictional toads are not real.  Real toads can be found in the nonfiction section, aisle 12, thank you very much.

Next week is “Banned Books Week.”  The history of banned novels tells us something about the levels of “truthiness” in fiction and how very threatened some people feel by the presence of fiction.  Yet, if fiction isn’t true—if it doesn’t convey some sort of truth—why would they matter in the first place?  Are some books banned because of what they would lead readers to believe?  That sometimes different people have different understandings of the truth?

Fiction does lie, it fabricates, it invents, it distorts, it exaggerates, but it also does more than that.  Perhaps because fiction is not bound to the rules of truth it is able to more closely approximate the human experience.  We all know that fiction’s greatest strength is its internal nature. In the greatest works of fiction we’re able to get inside the heads of characters, to see as they see, feel as they feel, and think as they think.  Fiction, certainly good fiction, allows the reader to experience a life different from her own and to understand this life more fully.  Isn’t this understanding a form of truth?

Yes, fiction is untrue–contains inventions, imaginary worlds, make believe, and, yes, a little bit of lying.  But fiction is “untrue” only if we take “truth” to mean the “literal truth” or “fact.”  However, I believe the best fiction takes life and deepens the experience for the reader.  We know, for example, that Jay Gatsby isn’t just a man with a big house and lavish parties.  He’s a man with deep longings, heavy burdens, insecurities, and big dreams.

The success of a piece of fiction, to me, seems to revolve around how capable it is of expressing some sort of common truth and the number of readers who can relate to that truth.  Is The Great Gatsby so great because we all want to know what it feels like to wear fancy party shirts and live in a posh neighborhood?  No. But we can relate to the feeling that we’re not good enough or that we can’t measure up.  Do we like Hunger Games because we can relate to allowing our children to be sacrificed in a reality-show showdown till death?  No.  But we can relate to the kinds of frustrations Hunger Games inspires in us, or the desire to keep our dignity and humanity in the face of a world that seems to be crumbling around us.

The common myth of fiction writers is that we simply have good imaginations, that we live in our own minds fabricating new worlds.  On the contrary, I think fiction writers share the unique ability of observation. We don’t always invent worlds, we observe them. We observe “toads” twice, once in the real world and another time again in our imaginary ponds. And the toad we see in the real world might not have three warts and an injured leg, as it does in our story—but it’s the same toad.

Fiction writers remake reality.  That’s that magic: taking a world apart and putting it back together again in a way that doesn’t resemble the first world, but contains the same truth.  There’s actually a lot of order and method to this.  Fictional worlds aren’t born out of creative chaos; they’re born out of truth. And the world we put back together again doesn’t always resemble, exactly, the original copy.  There may not be a one to one correlation between our experiences and our fiction.  So back to my story—and the question I get about whether or not my fiction is “true”: maybe I didn’t have a son who came back as a fish.  But maybe I had a fish.

A lot of authors have spoken to this idea of truth in fiction:

Anne Lamott: “Good writing is about telling the truth.”

Stephen King: ”Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Ralph Ellison:Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.”

Mark Twain :Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

Tom Wolfe:The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

In fiction, readers can experience things in a way they can’t do in real life.  Fiction resolves uncertainties, it follows an ordered path, it provides meaning. Real life can be inconsistent, chaotic, messy. Sometimes bad things happen in real life, and we don’t know why. You can’t say in a novel:  You just had to be there.  Fiction distills truth for us.  And for this reason, I believe most fiction is “true.”

So maybe the advice to “write what you know” isn’t just another cliché taught by yet another writing teacher.  Maybe when I tell my students the same thing, I’m not just spewing empty air.  Grace Paley once said “We write out what we don’t know about what we know.”  Maybe this is why even when we’re writing fantasy, we’re writing truth.  We’re writing something that feels familiar to us, even if we’ve never experienced it.

Maybe this is what I was writing about my story about the boy and about the fish. Maybe I don’t have a son. Or a fish. Maybe I’ve never even been to a river. But I do know what it feels to suffer loss, and I know no specific, singular journalistic accounting of these losses will make it any truer, no description of the way I’ve cried, or didn’t cry, or the people who I’ll never see again will bring them back, like that fictional son who came back from the dead as a fish.

I borrow experiences from my real life, but I rarely write about my real life.  But I don’t think my fiction is any less true because of it.  And because of this I’ll probably always write what I know.

Saul Bellow once said, “A novel is a balance between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part.  It promises us meaning, harmony, and even justice.”

As writers, I urge you to think about what kind of truth your writing conveys.  What is it that you wish to say about our world? Creating a new existence—a reflection of our lived one—that’s the greatest aspiration of any fiction writer, even if it takes a few lies to get there.


3 thoughts on “Truth in Fiction: Or, Should We Write What We Know?

  1. I can’t tell you how much I LOVED this post. I teach a whole segment of my fiction course on this, why fiction is a truth that’s more real than real life. I love, love, love how eloquently you expressed these thoughts. In the future, I might assign this post as part of our reading.

  2. Thanks for sharing. This piece makes “writing what you know” become clear for me. It deepens one’s understanding of this concept, and I think this concept can be transferred to other genres. Nice post.

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