Fiction Defines Our Past and Present Lives
June 20, 2012
But what do we tell the stick-in-the-muds about the value in fiction? I told one of the elitists who said he did not have time for fiction that he risked being uninformed—that today’s great biographers use stories to tell about their subjects—even dialogue.
So, how can they know what people actually said so many years ago? Most of the time, they can’t—they have to make it up. Is that a lie? Or is it just a clever way of telling a true story to make it more entertaining? And what about the great novels that changed the world? I listed a few, but no sell.
I got some support from an article written about Dallas physician and medical school professor Abraham Verghese. I consider him an unbiased source because he is not an author of fiction. The doctor said, “Good fiction can achieve a higher kind of truth than non-fiction.
Good stories are instructions for living . . . a great novel transports you to another planet, lets you vicariously live a full life, and when you come back it’s still Tuesday, and yet you’ve learned the lessons of a lifetime. That’s what everyone, doctors included, could get from fiction. …. And God is in the details . . . you can’t skim and get meaning.”
I have been saying for years that stories bind us together—stories heal. I was speaking in the spiritual sense, but James Pennebaker and a team of researchers at the University of Texas determined that writing and reading stories raises the t-cell level in the bloodstream, stabilizing the immune system.
Tom Spanbauer says that “fiction is the lie that makes the truth truer—that facts are about a series of events, fiction is about the meaning of those events”.
The most asked question I get about my books is now and always has been, “Is any of this true?” At the book launch for Go Down Looking in early May, I quoted a line from “I wish I Was Eighteen Again” the song that George Burns sang when he was in his eighties. I always thought the second line was “Going where I’ve already been.” Turns out, the line is, “Going Where I’ve Never Been.” Both apply to my newest novel, Go Down Looking, but there is much more already been then never been.
Back to scholar and scientist Jonathan Gottschall and his book, The Storytelling Animal. He says (based on scientific experiments), “Stories are defining parts of our everyday lives”. So what happens when the so-called facts conflict with our memory-stories?
Gottschall answers, “Humans have a knack for weeding out inconsistencies and putting in facts that enhance our self-made narratives. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.” You have to love the term strategic forgetting.
Some of my readers who know my history and know the history of Northeast Texas barely got past the first scene in Go Down Looking before contacting me about something they remember differently. I enjoy getting these questions and challenges. Usually, a little more reading will answer their questions. If not, I always enjoy explaining why I told the story the way I did.
Gottschall goes on, “Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to all kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species . . . Stories make societies work better.”
Remember what we talked about earlier: We forget what we hear, remember what we see, and understand what we do. Reading fiction allows us to hear, see and do. I have many friends, mostly men, who have not read a book since high school. They say they can’t stay awake or, “I’ll wait till the movie comes out.”
That’s because they only read words. They haven’t taught themselves to hear, see and do right along with the characters in books. When they learn to do this, they read faster and begin to understand the meaning of stories and begin to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Speaking of that, Willard Spiegelman in his Seven Pleasures (Essays on Ordinary Happiness) book, lists reading and writing as two of the seven. Listening, dancing, looking, walking, swimming, are the other five. Okay, I don’t know why he left out the one you would have chosen. I think the answer lies in the word ordinary.