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Fiction and Truth

Posted on Jan 23, 2007 by

When I was in graduate school, one of my writing teachers told us this story, a true story about one of his students. Call her Sarah. Sarah’s young son had been ill for a long time with leukemia and then had died. It was a terrible grief, and one she had tried to write about many times—and couldn’t. My teacher suggested she try writing the story again, and this time switch the gender, telling the story from the point of view of a father who has lost a young son. Sarah wrote. The story began to come. And what she’d held in—a hard truth she’d believed was unacceptable—began to spill out into the story. Relief. One of the things the father in the story felt when the boy died, after months of watching him suffer, was relief.

Question: Can writing fiction be a way of getting at something true?

This same teacher who told us this story–or maybe it was another teacher–told us once that in order to write a good story you need to love all of your characters–have compassion towards them. And it occurs to me now that if an author could love all of the characters in a story, then it might become possible for one of those characters to express a feeling that the character might have thought was unacceptable. As the author felt compassion toward him–toward that character–an (apparently) unacceptable feeling might become, in that moment, more acceptable–ordinary–human. And that would be, I think, a good part.