Writing towards the Truth

On page 112 of ‘Rising Above the Plains’, John McPhee writes about a time the geologist David Love was learning German and how he came across this line in a book. ‘There is an inscription above a doorway at the German Naval Officers School in Kiel that reads, ‘Say not ‘This is the truth’ but ‘So it seems to me to be as I now see the things I think I see.’ 

What is truth? In Russia, they have two words: ‘Istina’, which is philosophical truth, and ‘Pravda’, which is scientific truth. Scientific truth is the most robust form of truth based on facts and processes.

The truth in our society is mostly subjective. For instance, take our system of law. This is based on the testing of truth by the presentation of alternative ‘facts’ with the intention of putting doubt in the jury’s minds. Lawyers understand how to distort, hide, twist and abuse the truth, as these facts are often difficult to understand, discover, explain and verify. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. What happens is a fact, yet the truth is just what we think about what happens.

We often make life-changing decisions based on our beliefs, and sometimes those experiences, however powerful, might be based on falsehoods and lies. So we invest a lot in the truth as we see it. The 16th Century philosopher Francis Bacon wrote ‘Man prefers to believe in what he believes to be true. For what a man would like to be true that he more readily believes.’ 

Why lie? It is the fear of being wrong. To lie is a failure to understand and an unwillingness to be understood. Our lies determine how others see the world. We lie to cover up the bad things we do and the good things we forget to do. Liers refuse to cooperate with others, and they see their lies as a shortcut to getting things done.

The problem with lies is that often one lie begets another lie, and soon it gets hard to keep track of all the stories. Lies also build a wall between the ‘truth’ that we see and the way others see us. We may lie with words, yet we reveal the truth through actions. How we stand, look or act reveals the truth in ways that no words can hide.

Nothing is more depressing than to discover our lives are built on a fabric of lies. Politicians use language to make lies sound reasonable and respectable, and much of what they say is to give the appearance of solidarity to pure wind. People will go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of truth. 

As writers, we deal in truth. A reader will ask, ‘What do I believe to be true in this story?’ If the reader’s belief is fragile, then your truth must be robust. Your story must be like a tree rooted deep in the ground under which they can shelter and rest. It is the reader’s recognition of the truth that is thrilling. Good writing rests on how the story becomes the truth for the writer and the reader.

Steve Martin’s writing advice is ‘Just tell the truth.’ Begin by aiming towards truth. It lies on the horizon. Vague and indefinite. Maybe you never get there, but it will give you a sense of direction. You have nothing to fear if you believe what you write to be true. You should always be open to reconsidering the facts and changing your point of view. Just strive to write the truth as you understand it to be.

And finally, how can we live a balanced moral life in a tough, negative and sometimes evil world? Have integrity, avoid anything that leads to shame and remorse, and be a good friend. Truthful friends are a gift.

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