Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Truth and Fiction and Inconvenience

There's truth in fiction. It gives a story impact. But there's the dilemma all writers face--how much truth do you use and how much do you make up? When does the truth become dull preaching?

So, how do you balance the duty a writer has to the truth against the desire to write a salable book that an editor will love and a reader buys? And, lets face it, what about writing the book you want to write? What about just writing that fantasy book that's all about feeling good and not looking at truths? What about a writer's obligation to the reader to produce a good story?

Having seen the movie An Inconvenient Truth, I've been thinking about happy endings. And the need to struggle for them. I've also been thinking about how a lot of folks don't want to see this movie, or think about the fact that we're putting seventy million tons of global warming pollution in the air, and how selling a book may not be an issue in ten years. Things like getting food and water from a desert may matter more.

I've also been thinking about how fiction can highlight our capacity for change. Change is closing the hole in the ozone. Change started cleaning up the air in LA. So maybe it's time not to keep talking about if we're changing our world, so much as maybe recognizing that we do, and just looking at how to make that change for the better.

If you write one page a day, you can have a book done in a year. What if you make one small change in your life every month or every week: switch to energy efficient light bulbs, start buying local produce, opt to buy carbon credits to offset travel, take one less drive every week, carry a canvas bag for quick shopping trips so you don't use plastic ones? Small things, but they can have that same impact of one page a day. And if enough people start thinking and doing...

And what if we start writing characters who think about these things? What if the heroine recycles her trash? What if the hero wonders if his son will have a world that's lost polar ice caps? Do we create the world we want in fiction--can we create a consciousness that can change the world? Shouldn't we at least think and talk about these things?

Fiction is about dramatizing the truth so it can punch home. It's about crafting compelling characters and story, but it's also about a writer who has to get out that story written. The publishing business is about making money, but we write for more than money (at least I hope we do--I really hope that trees die with good reasons).

But I'm still wondering about the balance of truth and fiction--about living in a world that may be about to topple over and out of that, and about what I'm doing to keep my balance as a writer, as a person, as someone who cares. I write because the truth matters. And I wonder about those who want to close their eyes and ears, who don't want to discuss, or look, or question.

Can fiction--can our fiction--shake up the world a little? Make things matter? Shouldn't art be a little disturbing. Shouldn't fiction sometimes be just as inconvenient as truth?


Nancy Morse said...

I believe that you can definitely write characters who are conscious of their environment by recycling or switching to energy efficient light bulbs or fuel efficient cars, but without being preachy about it. This is, after all, fiction, and if someone wants to read about global warming, they're not going to pick up a romance novel. That said, as writers I do think we have a responsibility to create awareness, and that can be done through our characters' actions. You can show your heroine recycling, not as a major action on her part, but as something she just does, without saying that she does it because it's the right thing to do, but only to plant the seeds of awareness in people's minds. Then it's up to them. Some people will get it and some won't. Some people can watch documentaries on conservation and still go out and shoot a bear or toss their litter out the car window without a second thought. Never mind educating the masses. If you can make just one person aware of the importance of preserving the environment through what you have written, then you will have accomplished something very important.

Sandra K. Moore said...

My first book, The Orchid Hunter, takes place primarily in the Amazon. I didn't set the book there so I'd have a chance to discuss clearcutting, exploitation of native peoples, illegal gold mining, and mercury poisoning, but because the story demanded an exotic location. My heroine was a woman who didn't take sides (except her own) and left everyone else pretty much alone. But her adventure gave me the opportunity to bring all those social issue elements into the story to create texture and additional dramatic conflict without my putting up a big neon sign flashing "If the Amazon dies, we're screwed!" The best I could do was post the bibliography for the novel on my web site. If people want to know more, they'll visit.

I can only know what's right for me to do. I believe people change when they choose to change and not before. While I'd like very much for something in my work to have an impact for the better on the reader, I can't pretend that I have anything to do with any good outcomes, just as I can't take responsibility when someone goes out and holds a gun to a friend's head because s/he has read a similar scene in my book. If we don't want to claim the bad, we can't claim the good, either.

But that's just my opinion. For me, the crux of the environmental issues has to do with what we value. Check out the Happy Planet Index at the New Economics Foundation to see an interesting correlation between happiness and technological progress. The two seem at first glance to have an inversely proportional relationship.

Cheryl Bolen said...

Provocative posts. I do believe authors can insert ecology stuff without being preachy -- or can have a character who is preachy without making the book didactic.
We all do need to do our part to save the planet, and I like the suggestions to incorporate this in our books, too.
I'm so huge into recycling my family makes fun of me. When I taught school I never used baggies but brought my lunch in reusable containers. I'm very conscious about saving fuel, but unfortunately not enough to drive a tiny car (because I have to haul a lot for my antiques business).
I like the page-a-day analogy, and I'm proud to be associated with authors who care.