You’ll remember that scene in Dead Poets’ Society where Ethan Hawke’s character is forced to make up a poem on the spot because he skipped out on the writing assignment to avoid reading it aloud. (If you haven’t seen it, run out and rent it now, then come back…)
Robin Williams is trying to help him overcome his fears:
John Keating (Robin Williams): Close your eyes, close your eyes! Close ’em! Now, describe what you see.
Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke): Uh, I-I close my eyes.
John Keating: Yes.
Todd Anderson: Uh, and this image floats beside me.
John Keating: A sweaty-toothed madman.
Todd Anderson: A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.
John Keating: Oh, that’s *excellent*! Now, give him action – make him do something!
Todd Anderson: H-His hands reach out and choke me.
John Keating: That’s it! Wonderful, wonderful!
Todd Anderson: And all the time he’s mumbling.
John Keating: What’s he mumbling?
Todd Anderson: Mumbling truth.
John Keating: Yeah, yes.
Todd Anderson: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
John Keating: [some of the class start to laugh] Forget them, forget them! Stay with the blanket. Tell me about that blanket!
Todd Anderson: Y-Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream…
Mumbling truth. Isn’t that what fiction is all about? Ironically, it is sometimes fiction that holds more truth than the facts. John Irving is a master at this, talking about some controversial thing like abortion (The Cider House Rules), showing both sides of the story but not quite indicating exactly how the reader is supposed to feel about it. That’s unlike most writers of course – isn’t our job mostly to reveal our own truths? I guess when you can walk that tight wire between two truths like Irving can, you owe it to your fans to do so.
But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that you have to find that kernel of truth – a universal truth – that ties the whole story together. In The Great Gatsby:
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of…” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” [Gatsby] said suddenly.
Of course there are many truths in Gatsby. But that is the central one, when you consider theme. It also explains the whole plot: why Gatsby loves Daisy, why he did everything he did for just a shot at getting her back.
I suppose in this case it helps that this is very much styled on his own life – Zelda refused to marry Scott until he published his first book. It was a truth he knew intimately.
But how well do we know our own truths even? And how many of us would dare speak them aloud (put them down on paper!) even if we did?
Being a writer takes a lot of courage that many people don’t understand. You know that you’ll be scrutinized – not just your work, but you. As in, “what kind of person would write this?” Or perhaps, “where’d he get that from – must be personal experience…”
As I’ve mentioned before, you can subconsciously reveal things about yourself that you don’t even know you’re doing (as if we’re not neurotic enough…)
Still, finding that truth is deathly important. As in, my book will be dead in the water if I don’t find them.
That’s something I’m trying to be conscious of lately. Through the twists and turns the story is taking, there has to be a central strand of truth – a touchstone for the whole story, a “her voice is full of money” moment. I haven’t quite found it yet, but I know it’s out there.
Some good work tonight. I’m basically reworking stuff now instead of rewriting, like I was before. It means I’m flying through the Part 2 now – I might even have that completed by the end of the weekend…
Novel Writing Hours