From the Editors: This essay originally appeared at Shelly Lowenkopf’s blog, lowenkopf.com — highly recommended for anyone interested in the process of creative writing and revision, from nuts-and-bolts mechanics to the deeper workings of one writer’s reflective psyche. See also Shelly’s book of short fiction, Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night.
When the time arrives for you to self-edit and possibly revise any given manuscript you’ve produced, one of the first things you look for is the word “truth” and such of your favorite habit phrases as “Truth to tell–,” “If the truth be known,” or “The truth is–”
The habit word can range from the seemingly innocuous “and” to a word you hate with a passion, “that,” and other uses you’ve picked up over your years, a memorable one being “accordingly,” which you tend to use at the beginning of a sentence, as in, “Accordingly, there is no value in such rhetoric.” Why not get rid of the “accordingly” and get right to the point, “There is no value in such rhetoric.”
Not that you have anything against telling the truth. You in fact learn intriguing bits of information to chew over later when, in the heat of composition passion, you reveal something about yourself you hadn’t been all that aware of on a more direct level. For instance, there’s the gray area around exaggerating and telling a known untruth.
If you are reporting a thing you saw or voicing an opinion, you are giving your version and should only have to resort to exaggeration in the sense of how important the event was, to whom, and what your share of interest in it might be.
If there was any doubt in your mind before you began this platform of blogging in March of 2007, this exercise has made it clear that you are not averse to casting yourself in a positive light. As many of the entries will show, you’re pretty good about leaving in the twists and turns of detail that show you as bearing an occasional flaw.
You organize search and destroy missions against phrases with “truth” in them as well because such tropes are clichés, meaning if you did not catch the truth tropes in the specific for-truth pass, you’d likely find them in the cliché pass. This leaves you with the basic assumption that you are at all times telling the truth, even when you are writing fiction. There are numerous times when “truth” is brought out of an abstract state and signifies what a specific character believes to be so.
You may doubt the veracity of what the character said. So, indeed, may one or more of the other characters. You, and the other characters, may reach the conclusion that the character who has strayed from the truth has done so with an agenda that will come forth in the story. On the other side of the binary pathway, your dramatic purpose may be served if other characters suspect a specific character of bending the truth.
This gives us a mythic situation in which Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo. Talk about looking gift horses in the teeth, Cassandra, either through prophetic vision or human psychology, believed the gift was offered to ease Apollo’s way into her pants. She said no to his overtures, which prompted him to exact his revenge. Her gift of prophecy would be accurate, but no one would believe her visions.
Imagine what a dramatic character myth has given us, playing as it does on the woo-woo abilities of the gods to create cosmic mischief and the simple binary of a woman who often knows what she is talking about, but her visions go unheeded. “Hey, Uncle Fred is going to stop by tonight on an unannounced visit.” “Uncle Fred would never do such a thing. He’s too considerate of politeness rituals.” “Yeah, well, just you wait and see.”
For you to say you will always attempt to tell the truth burdens you with the responsibility of investing characters who mean some harm or opposition to other of your characters with an imperative to “tell it as they see it,” which is a rank cliché and will have to go in one of your many romps through the landscape of your imagination.
For you to say you will never exaggerate is another matter. In all truth, there are times when you can’t help yourself; you yield to the temptation with the clear conscience of a person who knows how story is by its intrinsic nature an exaggeration, those extra details added in the hope of making the story and its built-in fabric of exaggerations emerge as a relic of some useful value among individuals who strain to make a living in and of the world.