I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling and how stories wire and rewire our brains. The way facts can obscure the truth. The way a tiny whisper can overpower a scream.
How a story is told alters the truth that emerges from the narrative. Stories can drive us apart from each other, and they can illuminate our common humanity. Stories teach us new perspectives.
As a fiction writer, I am not necessarily bound by facts. I do, however, feel beholden to truth. But as we stand here together on the rubble of 2020, how do we even discern what truth is?
This election season has been an exercise in truth-telling and truth-denying. It has been a colossal experiment in story. No longer do voters simply ask, Which facts do I believe? They ask Which story resonates with me? Which narrative do I choose to believe?
We all know that data can be manipulated. Facts and figures can be selectively pieced together to convey a predetermined message. Polls can be wrong. So, so wrong. When I look back on the 2020 election, I will not remember the voter turnout in Florida or the number of mail-in ballots from Michigan.
I will remember the picture of a young girl being torn away from her parents by border control agents. I will remember the faces of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I will remember the devastation of historic forest fires and record-breaking hurricanes that crashed into Gulf Coast communities. I will remember the captivating eyes of Selena Reyes-Hernandez, one of the many transgender people murdered in our country this year. I will remember the refrigeration trucks filled with victims of COVID-19 lined up outside New York City hospitals.
These are the stories, the truths that moved me in 2020.
But another version of 2020 also exists. This other version includes brave militias valiantly defending Confederate statues, unmasked customers asserting their ‘right’ to shop mask-free, proud sports fans clinging to culturally appropriated team mascots while ignoring the Indigenous people they disrespect.
One America. Two stories.
The problem is that most of us live in echo chambers and hear the same plotlines parroted back to us from our like-minded friends and insular social media circles. We tune in to the news we agree with, unfriend the people whose narratives deviate from ours.
Our truth becomes the only truth.
Fiction, however, is a stealthy device, a Trojan horse that sneaks different perspectives in unnoticed. Story presents an opportunity to share the truths we believe in with people outside our bubbles.
Although we can certainly learn facts from fiction, most people come to novels for entertainment and pleasure. We want to get lost in the story. Inhabiting characters and living their desires is a boundless act of empathy that enables us to experience someone else’s story as truth. As we step into perspectives different from our own, fiction implores us to bear witness to racism, homophobia, fatphobia, xenophobia, and misogyny. It allows us to live in futures that have not yet happened and see the after-effects of climate crisis before they play out.
I recently sat on a panel at the Brattleboro Literary Festival with author Andrew Krivak, author of The Bear, a gorgeous novel about a father and daughter who are the last two humans on a future Earth ravaged by climate change. His imagined future is not based on fact, but it is steeped in truth.
I have a particular interest in fiction that engages the climate crisis. My debut novel Waiting for the Night Song, which comes out in January, is set in a slightly speculative New Hampshire where an uptick in local temperature attracts an invasive beetle which is killing trees and leaving the forest ripe for a forest fire. This beetle is not actually in New Hampshire – not yet, anyway. But there is still truth in my story.
Like Andrew Krivak, I want readers to imagine ‘what if?’ What if New England was burning like California and Colorado? What if we lack the political will to address climate change before humans become an endangered species?
I’m drawn to stories like The Bear, Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler because they extrapolate small truths about our changing climate and magnify them until they become impossible to ignore. I do not want to be the last person on Krivak’s Earth. I do not want our planet’s creatures to become extinct the way McConaghy prophesizes. I do not want our country to fall into the climate-ravaged anarchy Butler portrays. The inherent wisdom in these stories haunts and motivates me.
Writing is a political act, an act of resistance, an act of love. It requires digging deep for the truths we hold dear and packaging them in narratives that penetrate readers’ defenses. In telling stories, we can share ideas that might not resonate when presented in graphs and charts.
To all you writers working on manuscripts, please finish them. Fight to get your stories out in the world because someone out there needs to hear your truth — even if they don’t know it yet.
On election night 2020, as the maps started turning a shocking shade of red, I began to panic. My son said, “Remember when Odysseus had to win back his home by shooting an arrow through a bunch of narrow targets, and no one thought it was possible, but he did it? That’s what Biden needs to do.”
His literary metaphor conveyed the high stakes, drama, and emotion because the image was loaded with a backstory I recognized from this familiar story that we all share. He did not explain the polling data he was tabulating. At that moment, numbers and facts didn’t mean much. Instead, my son told me a story about courage, fortitude, and love.
Facts can be distorted, but I have to believe that truth rises. Stories matter. The stories we listen to. The stories we share. And the stories we tell.
As I write this post, I do not yet know the results of the 2020 presidential election. Odysseus’ arrow is still in the air, powered by the hope, courage, exhaustion, and resiliency of an electorate that wants to tell a better story.
Have you ever read a book that made you see the world differently? Is there a book or author who particularly resonates with because of the big truths in their writing? Are you writing a story you think people need to hear?