Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Telling the Truth

Elsewhere I've written about how my experience as a family member of a murder victim has led me to public advocacy to abolish the death penalty. This isn't a discussion of the pros and cons of the death penalty; it's about story-telling. In general, I use this blog for writerly professional stuff and put more personal issues into my LiveJournal. But I think the process by which we learn to tell the truth in our personal lives is related to the process of excavating the truth in our fiction.

I'm not a political activist. In fact, I've often described myself as allergic to it. I certainly have opinions, but the prospect of placing myself in a confrontational, adversarial position (with those nutsos who don't agree with me, right?) has been overwhelmingly intimidating. It took me a long time to find a way that was at all emotionally possible for me to state my case.

That way, it turns out, was to tell my story.
And to tell it in a way that has no expectation of changing anyone else's opinion. The story must speak for itself. I've had a long time to explore what my own story is -- 25 years next month -- and to change how I think about it, and for my own heart to heal. I had not seen this so clearly as last week, when I was part of a lobbying effort through California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. We worked in teams of a family member, a lobbyist, and an exoneree. The lobbyist had all the statistics and arguments; the exoneree had his or her own story of what it was like to be an innocent person facing execution, and I had my own story to tell. That's all I had to do, to focus on the heart of my own experience and no one else's. What was important to me was how I was able to walk through the pain, anger, and grief, what helped me, what made my healing journey more difficult.

Such stories don't have conflicting and mutually exclusive opposites. Another person can have a different experience and reach different conclusions, but that in no way invalidates my experience. I found that when I spoke from that experience without any agenda of the conclusions my listener might draw, that there was infinite space for differences, for validation without capitulation, and for deep listening. When we listen without fear of having our cherished beliefs challenged, we often hear things that we haven't thought of but that give us a new perspective, if only a little bit. I have never considered what it would be like to be charged with a capital crime I had not committed, or to spend decades in prison before the DA was censured for prosecutorial misconduct and I was exonerated, or many of the other stories I heard. When we ourselves speak without fear of having those cherished beliefs challenged, we can find the freedom and the courage to dig deeper, to uncover our authentic experiences, and to allow our understanding of those experiences change.

What does any of this have to do with fiction? I think that much of the power of stories -- whether they are the narratives of our own lives or fictional creations -- derives from their truth. Fiction has at its core some statement -- a mirror, a variation, a crystallization -- of the human experience. In bad fiction, that can be a mockery or stereotype, a simplification parading as a role model. Good fiction does what good personal story-telling does; rather than bash the reader over the head with "You must feel this" or "You must think that, and I will give you a hundred reasons I'm right," it tells a story in a way that gives the reader the choice what to pick up, what to discard, and how meaningful those things are. The reader/listener encounters the story from a place of integrity: "When I read this story, I thought... I felt.... I realized..." Stories, because they communicate through evoked experience instead of instruction or preaching, allow us to find common ground, to strengthen our empathy, and reflect in new ways on our own life narratives.


  1. Christiana WaldrumAugust 24, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    I've always felt that a good writer makes the reader want to get into the head of the characters. Feel what they feel or imagine how they feel and why. A good book for me, makes me actually care how the book ends

  2. I think that in order to do that, the book has to be emotionally true, or you might as well be trying to get into the heads of toasters. Wait, that's been done!

  3. Yes indeed. The others are what I use to wedge the doors open :-)

  4. "Getting into the heads of toasters" ... ROFL ... but only when I was much younger and really, really, stoned ... munchies anyone? Mmmmmmm