I’d like to talk to you about truth.
You already know what truth is, of course - but that’s not the kind I mean. There’s nothing new I can tell you about facts, or accuracy. Those things have their place, and they’re essential.
But there’s another sort of truth, and it’s important too. I’d argue that it might even be more important than the first kind.
You’re a storyteller, aren’t you?
Of course you are. You tell stories all the time. Every anecdote, every conversation, and even every recollection. We exist in a continuum of stories; each one refracted through the lens of personal experience, perspective, bias, and imperfect memory.
We make sense of the universe via the stories we tell others, and especially those we tell ourselves. We are all storytellers.
Let’s consider our goals. Understanding the world is clearly one of them. But there’s a better one: to reach other people. To resonate.
I believe there’s no greater goal than having an emotional impact on another person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one, either, as long as your intentions aren’t malicious. We need to be exposed to negative emotions too. Our lives are saturated with them, so you’d better learn how they feel, and how to handle them.
Here’s an uncomfortable idea: facts often stand in the way of resonance. An accurate detail can detract from the effectiveness of a tale.
Perhaps it’s untidy, and muddies the waters. Maybe it blunts the message, or introduces an unhelpful smear of complexity. Perhaps it punctures the emotional beat of the story. Or perhaps it pulls us out of the narrative altogether.
There’s a barrier between our inner world and this universe we live in. Stories are our synthesis of that universe into forms that are not only comprehensible and emotionally satisfying, but also viable as tools.
We use our stories to bridge those two worlds: the outer, and the inner. We use them to explain the inexplicable, and to hang a picture frame over the frightening vastness and unpredictability of reality. To give a voice to our hopes, dreams, and fears.
To make that bridge work, our stories have to send a spark across the gap. That spark is the feeling you get when a tale resonates with you; when you think This feels true.
What you really mean is that it feels true for you , and that’s more than enough.
The truth we want isn’t an objective, verifiable thing - it’s a feeling. This more resonant type of truth is when something is believable, and rings true.
Sometimes these truths are simplifications of facts, but only coincidentally. What they really are is sharpenings. Honings of that core element that leaps across the gap between the outer world, where you read the words or hear the lyrics, and your inner domain. The spark crackles through you, setting neurons alight, and you feel that you’ve uncovered something fundamental.
A lie (because all stories are lies, to some extent) that’s truer than life.
As a writer, it’s your responsibility to craft the reader’s experience. Everything matters: word choice, spelling, grammar, pacing, and what’s omitted. The details themselves also need to be suitably dressed.
What’s the point you’re making? Does a fact detract from that point? Then get rid of the fact. Shape the reader’s perception so that what comes across is as pure as you can make it. We’re not talking about journalism here, where preserving context, spirit and intent has an ethical relevance. When you’re telling a story, the only moral outcome is connecting with the reader.
It’s absolutely OK, and necessary, to twist events into a more striking form; one that makes better sense to our feelings than to our intellect.
Words are an engineered virus for the mind, after all. It would be a dull world if the only pictures we painted were from real life. We can also learn about life best by seeing it in its most elemental form, through the hyper-vibrant lens of judicious tailoring and fictionalisation.
It’s the job of a storyteller to find the truer lie. More than that, it’s a responsibility - to the reader, and to yourself.
Whatever you make, make it true.