Thursday, October 11, 2012

Telling the Truth

When I write a story, I try to tell the truth. Not the literal truth of course--I'm not interested in reporting facts about what happened to me or people I know--but the essential truth, the truth about what it's like to be alive, to be human.

But do we all agree on what that truth is? Do we see things the same way?

Ernest Hemingway used to say that his ambition for each day's writing was to write "one true sentence." I think what he meant was that he wanted the words to perfectly reflect the emotions and state of being of his characters. He believed if he got the words just right, the reader would  know, feel,  understand exactly what he wanted them to.

T.S. Eliot called this the "objective correlative." The writer, in his view, should not describe emotions, or mention them by name, but should find the exactly right objects(s) in nature to evoke the emotion. Everyone, he believed, will associate certain emotions with specific objects. A red rose, for example, might evoke romantic love. A black widow spider might evoke evil intention. The writer's task, in other words, is to show a state of mind through the right selection of images rather than tell the reader what a character is feeling by way of a narrative.

But what if we don't all share the same associations with certain objects? What if a red rose makes me think of thorns and the pain of pricking my finger? What if I had a pet black widow spider as a child and I think of spiders with fondness?

I'm all for showing instead of telling. It's one of the fundamental lessons beginning writers receive when they join a critique group or send their early pieces to a reviewer.

"Don't tell me Susie is sad. Show me she's sad through what she says and does."

That's good advice because telling me how a character feels rapidly becomes boring and the story turns heavy and flat.

However I also know that, while we share a universal arsenal of human emotions, we don't all see the world the same way. Hemingway and Eliot, I think, believed that we all respond to certain images, certain words, certain situations, the same way.

We don't.

So when I try to tell the truth, I have to limit myself to my truth, knowing full well that your truth might be quite different.

I really have no choice.

  • If you grew up on a farm, you feel differently about slaughtering a pig than I do.
  • If you're from Asia you feel differently about dogs than I do.
  • I may assume that $100,000 a year is a huge income. You may see it as middling.
So, really, my task is to show you my reality and make you believe in it. And to do that, I have to familiarize you with how my characters see the world. And that goes beyond finding the exact right words to convey a feeling. Because I can't assume that my words mean to you what they mean to me.

So truth is never THE truth. It is always A truth.


  1. oh boy lee,thats some strong stuff.I never interpreted it that way.Very well put.

  2. Hi - I am your newest follower via BookBlogs and would love it if you had a chance to follow back at Thanks so much and have a great day. Athena

  3. Truth is always only an individual's truth, at one particular time, in one setting/situation. A published writer is willing to share her/his truth, to be a witness to what seems to be true, being aware that her/his truth is not universal. Truth can be a snapshot, or it can be a universal truth such as the concept of freedom. This is my reply to Lee Zamlock's blog.

  4. Truth is a dangerous word. As you mentioned Lee, what a red rose means to you may not be the same for me. As we get older, I do believe that despite backgrounds we are conditioned to associate certain feelings or thoughts with objects. For instance, I have a friend who is a Jehovah Witness and she does not celebrate Christmas but she knows that a Christmas tree symbolizes this holiday. If she were reading a story that used such a symbol, she may not connect with it as much as I would but she understands the general meaning. As long as these symbol disconnections are not too consistent, I believe that the reader will understand and ultimately find another way to connect with the story.

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