Telling the truth

I recently read an interview with Maya Angelou, who recently published a new memoir about her years living with her mother. This wonderful quote struck me:

Every adult owes to every young person the truth… Not the facts – you can get the facts from various sources. The truth is how human beings feel – how a particular action makes a human being sad or happy – so that when young people encounter that particular feeling, they can say, oh, I know this feeling because someone else has been here before.

This reminded me of a lecture I attended when I had the opportunity to take a class from N. Scott Momaday. Being a writer raised in the tradition of Native American storytelling, he often included storytelling in his lectures, and on this occasion he was talking about visiting a sibling and recounting stories of their childhood. His sibling looked at him, frowned, and said, “That’s not how it happened.” Momaday simply said he remembered it differently, refused to make a judgment about whose version of the account was right, and maintained that the story you internalize is the one that’s important to you. As he said, “All stories are true.” His version was true, and his sibling’s version was true.

I think these insights are particularly useful when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. I don’t want to rehash the continual genre vs. real literature debate, but I do constantly receive negative responses from people when I tell them what I write. Sometimes it’s just a blank look, maybe “I’ve never read any of that that,” or “My nephew reads that.” The scale goes up from this to “That’s my least favorite kind of book” and even “How can you like that silly, escapist, unrealistic stuff?”

But maybe it’s not about being realistic, or fitting someone’s version of the facts. Maybe all stories are true, because they’re about how people feel. An article I once read about writing SF described a good technique to ease readers into an unfamiliar setting: give them emotions they can relate to. Your main character might be a green alien with tentacles, but if that green alien with tentacles is a mother, then you can make her relationship to her children recognizable.

Similarly, when I sat down to write a book set in a politically charged landscape, it would have been a different experience if I’d set it in the real world. If my battling political groups had been Democrats and Republicans, readers would have brought their own preconceptions, and those might have overridden anything that was actually going on in the story. (And this was in the late 90s when I was writing Confidence Game – imagine the experience that would have been today!) By pulling this battle out into a more neutral setting, I could talk about power and corruption and how people behave when confronted with these things without the baggage. That’s not to say the reader doesn’t still bring their ideas to the story. Of course they do; that’s half of the process of any art form. But an allegorical handling offers an opportunity to get directly to the truth of the human experience.

(And speaking of politics, could that be the answer to our current politically charged landscape? To hear each others’ stories and recognize that they’re speaking their truth, rather than yelling at them, telling them they’re wrong, and trying to force them to agree to some supposedly objective definition of the facts? But seriously, get me out of here. I hate talking about politics.)

So tell your stories and make them true. Say what you feel.


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