Books · The Writing Process

It’s Not Real, but it’s Definitely True

A Dream Wellcome Trust Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wellcome Trust | Wikimedia Commons

Last month, Authors Electric’s Bill Kirton wrote this very interesting post. He was talking specifically about the fantasy genre, but he made a point that I think is relevant to all fiction:

“We carry all these race memories, dreams, imaginings; we can release people and things from their restricted functions. Maybe fantasy is simply a means of relaxing our grip on experience, a way to deny chronology and inevitability. Maybe it’s just a less uptight reality.”

It seems to me that whenever we write fiction – whether it’s fantasy or not – we are, in effect, doing much the same. Fiction is a lie, but it’s not untrue; and that seeming paradox may be at the heart of what we do.

Loving Imogen EBook Cover

“Reality is not the same as the truth” is the tagline to my novella Loving Imogen, and reflects the protagonist’s following thoughts:

“These are the things that he remembers from that summer, the things that have always stood out. There are things, no doubt, that he has forgotten about, and other things that he seems to remember but could just as easily have invented. And life, he supposes, is like that – not simply a catalogue of events, but an internal narrative that imposes shape and order on those events, and adds and subtracts, and lends meaning where there is none. And if one makes no attempt to separate invention from reality, or to impose some discipline on that inner storyteller, one might wonder whether one has in fact lived dozens of lives, countless lives. Reality, he thinks, is not the same as the truth.”

Reality and the truth are, in my opinion, often quite different things. The chair you’re sitting on, the air you’re breathing, the screen you’re reading this on, are generally judged to be “real”. They have a solid, physical existence. They do not depend upon the human observer for their reality; they are objective, definite.

(Or are they? There’s a case for doubting these things, of course, but this is neither the time nor the place for a metaphysical debate. Get back to the question at hand, Biella…)

As opposed to these things, there are the subjective things, dependent upon the observer. A dream is not “real”, and nor are feelings of love, fear, or exhilaration. The various reveries dredged up by our churning imaginations are not real, either. So what are they? The things that make us human? The evidence that we are more than machines? Or, if you’re of a strictly Darwinian bent, are they the by-products of a normally functioning physical organism – the brain’s effluent, if you like?

It's not real, obviously. But it might just be true... Image credit: Successgroups | Wikimedia Commons
It’s not real, obviously. But it might just be true… Image credit: Successgroups | Wikimedia Commons

That’s an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. But what interests me most is not what these things owe their existence to. What interests me is that these things, while they are not “real” in the accepted sense of the word, are nevertheless true. Take a sensation, either physical or emotional or a combination of the two. While the sensation may indeed have some physical cause, it nevertheless does not exist objectively: it is what is felt, subjectively, by the person who is experiencing it. Without the subject, the feeling doesn’t exist, and therefore lacks independent reality. Yet what you’re feeling at a given moment is, for you at least, the absolute, undeniable truth. It is immediate and evident in a way that, perhaps, nothing else can be.

And fiction is much like this. Nothing that we’re writing is real; we are, in effect, telling lies, albeit the kinds of lies that nobody’s expected to actually believe. But all fiction contains, at its heart, the truth. Fiction that doesn’t, oddly enough, quickly begins to seem highly un-realistic. Fairy tales, fantasy and indeed all fiction affects us because, although stories may be set in different worlds and times, they contain elements of what we know, instinctively, to be the truth.

Re-blogged from Authors Electric.

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7 thoughts on “It’s Not Real, but it’s Definitely True

  1. I’ve been going here and there this summer, but trying to catch up on your posts in between whiles;
    A very insightful post, Mari. Subtle and – my goodness, some unpleasant looking man with sharp teeth
    oily hair, and oddly archaic clothes is giggling at my elbow, muttering about ‘cut throats from the gutters
    of Paris’ and the reality of thought forms…He’s gone; good. To cibtubye: –
    Subtle and concise. I so agree about that kernal of truth idea.
    Another thought strikes me on the nature of reality – our perception of it changes over time. For instance, our views of relationships with others, situations, etc. You only need think of very old people who in middle age, say, had a critical attitude towards their family backgrounds coming to remember them as idyllic, etc.
    A matter of interpretation, I suppose – or are certain things surpressed, making these later value judgements invalid?

    1. Hello Lucinda, and thanks for the comment! I’m glad (?!) to see that your characters are still tormenting you…

      I think it’s certainly true that our perceptions of reality alter with time. I think too that our perceptions define our personal “reality”. This gives rise to quite an interesting question: are there countless millions of realities, all of them as valid as any other?

    1. Hello Bernard, and thank you for visiting my blog. I’m unfamiliar with the work of Lacan, but I like (and instinctively agree with) the idea that a dream or fantasy represents psychological truth. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Any truth beyond the non-trivial cannot be apprehended by ordinary logic. Take the concept of “good.” On an archetypal level, we grasp what it is, but as soon as we go to define it in prosaic terms, our understanding starts to fall apart as we encounter the sullied nature of “good” in reality. Art, and literature in particular, are the human mechanisms to approach an understanding of what is beyond (or outside) the ability of the intellect.

    I love this post, and agree: the best writers tell lies which serve as vehicles for ultimate truth. It’s no accident that most religious tracts are expressed in a kind of fever-dream poetry that is full of metaphor. Metaphor is really as close as we can get to an understanding, and metaphor itself is a special kind of beautiful fib.

    -aniko

    1. Hello Aniko, and thanks for the comment! I agree that art and metaphor are the means by which we may grasp quite profound truths – truths that go beyond ordinary logic and cannot be expressed in other ways. And I also think that the intellect is not always the only, or best, mechanism for understanding the “truth” of a given situation. This is why art is so fundamental to human life and experience, perhaps – it enables us to understand things that our intellects alone cannot.

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