Writers on Writing #81: Devin Kelly
Truth-Seeking: On the Art of Finding Truth in Fiction
In a recent workshop at school, a professor told my fellow students and I that “all fiction is inherently a lie.” I felt angered by this sentiment, though perhaps I shouldn’t have. His notion, at its core, is correct and cemented in its own truth. All fiction writers, when they imagine, create, and write their stories, are building worlds that do not exist, however borne from memory or experience they might be. Fiction writers are consistently spinning well-told lies, ones that hopefully resonate into the truth of the world. None of this should take away from the craft and art of fiction, or the beautiful catharsis of reading a good story, but my professor’s sentiment provides a mode by which to access the ideas and notions that, in my opinion, should be at the heart of good fiction and good art in general.
Not too long ago, I attended a writer’s conference where I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Andre Dubus III, who told me, over his whiskey and my beer, that all writers are “truth-seekers.” We were sitting outside on a mild night and I was slightly buzzed from the mix of alcohol and coffee. It was refreshing to hear such a vastly generalized universal statement come from the mouth of someone whose success might have conditioned him to speak about writing in more certain and teachable terms, ones that pertain to arc, structure, characterization, etc. – words that seem to float above my head, out of reach, at all times. The thought of a “truth-seeker” conjures up the image of a child, eyes wide, searching, and vast, looking out at a world so strange and new and frustratingly nonsensical. It is a beautiful image, almost innocent, at times fearless.
If we take to heart that all fiction is a lie and that all fiction writers are truth-seekers, we create a paradox of two ideas so inherently at odds with each other that any resolution seems almost unattainable. I am arguing now that the one resolution (if we may call it that) lies in the supplanting of truth deep within our fiction, especially now, in a modern age that makes it far easier and far more addictive to live within the deep strange holiness of the lie. The reality of daily life is one in which the hovering lingering possibility of the lie clouds over us at every moment. We do not know, at any time, whether the person we know is truly the person we know. There are masks and facades that social media and the general exponential growth of technology have made more transparent, invisible, and harmful. It is hard, in many respects, to speak of this reality in less metaphorically vague terms. If we as fiction writers, then, are spinning our own lies into the world, we must inject these lies with the deepness of truths universal and fearless, ones that subvert themselves underneath the masks of society and turn their gazes inward. This should not be a genre-specific endeavor, however, as many people have left postmodern fiction with the task of subversion; rather, it should be the aim of all fiction--to seek truth in the realm of imagined worlds, truth that resonates deep at the core of the reading world.
I am thinking now of Breece D’J Pancake, the Southern writer who cut his life far too short, whose The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake remains one of the most moving, haunting, visceral, and vastly underappreciated works of contemporary American fiction. Even now, in a world far removed from Pancake’s fictional West Virginia, his passages still shine forth from some deep eternal place. In the opening story, “Trilobites,” a masterpiece of short fiction, he writes: “I feel way too mean to say anything. I look across the railroad to a field sown in timothy. There are wells there, pumps to suck the ancient gases. The gas burns blue, and I wonder if the ancient sun was blue. The tracks run on till they’re a dot in the brown haze.” Pancake’s lines, fluid and ripe, speak to universality. They speak to time, how it moves, what it does to us. Nothing happens in “Trilobites.” Colly, the story’s protagonist, if you can even call him that, moves slowly through a world that is moving far too quickly for him. He watches the ones he loves die, run away, or grow old, unrecognizable. He watches the land change. One of the lies that exists in storytelling is the seeming necessity to ascribe structural certainties to the fiction itself. Characters need certain things, we are told. They need motivation, drive. Stories must rise and fall in action and scope. Pancake’s Colly has no extreme motivation, no pulsing drive. The story reaches no climax. Sometimes it seems to avoid it. But it is the truth that makes me cry, bawl, sometimes scream at the page. It is when Colly’s old girlfriend finally leaves him, when Colly says, “I stand there looking at the blood spots on the cloth. I feel old as hell. When I look up, her taillights are reddish blurs in the fog.” Perhaps Pancake would agree with me when I say that the world moves with no structural certainty, that time is the only guiding force we have. The only arc we are prescribed is the arc of aging. Our motivations change, our drives, too. There are days when the world moves around us and days when we feel as if we are moving the world. These are truths.
A common question in writing workshops is “what are the stakes of this story?” It is perhaps so common that in many ways it may have lost its meaning. Sometimes, I assume, it may make fellow workshoppers groan. I am begging now for it to be asked at the onset of every approach to a new piece of fiction, before questions of structure, plotting, characterization, and plausibility. What are the stakes of this story? What truth is it grasping for? Andre Dubus III never told me that writers are “truth-finders.” The seeking is part of the beauty. It is the reaching through the lies, the fearless and curious searching of near-ethereal universality, for the things that resonate under the skin of human beings and not just under the masks we so often walk through this world wearing. If a story, regardless of its claim to a certain school of postmodernism, or realism, or genre fiction, does not mitigate its wide-eyed attempt at truth for the structural certainty of the lie, then, regardless of its quality as a piece of writing, it has my deep and profound respect.
I recently assigned my 7th grade creative writing class the task of completing a short story. Most of them tackled the assignment with a youthful earnestness that was both endearing and refreshing. We had talked of guiding principles – notions of fictional storytelling that I eschewed above – but my students forgot these kinds of elements of fiction with a certain abandon that I secretly favored. They had things they wanted to say, and so they said them. One student wrote: “I hate having these conversations; you don’t learn anything from a person besides that they are liars for telling you that their day was great because you know it wasn’t.” Another student, in five page, single-paragraph story (the next Krasznahorkai?) wrote: “I have this strange feeling in my heart that gives me a sense of disbelief.” And yet another student wrote: “Life for me was harder than anyone thought, I had problems with my family, and on the top of that, school work and tests. Sometimes, the tower was too high for me to get to the top and I just wanted to let go, and then I saw others. Everyone was stressed and I noticed that I was not alone.” It hurts sometimes to think of these children growing up and feeling their earnestness to tackle in writing what they do and do not know lessen as they age into the strangeness of this turning world. It aches to think of them retreating further and further into themselves, hiding, perhaps, behind the objects, invisible or not, that make it easier to hide in the modern age. I do not want them to grow into the safety of the lie, knowing now with what ease they approach the scary uncertainty of the truth. I want us all, as writers, to write and learn as these children do, now, as eleven year olds – still wide-eyed, still searching, still restless. I want us to write stories that seek truth first, above all else, in a desperate, almost naked way, like skinny-dipping into a glassy pond whose bottom is eternal.
Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, by way of Fordham University. He has read as part of Lamprophonic's Emerging NYC Writers Series, and attended the Sirenland Writers Conference, hosted by One Story. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Catch & Release and Dunes Review, and are forthcoming in Steel Toe Review and Cleaver Magazine. He teaches creative writing and English to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens and currently lives in Harlem.