TELLING STORIES

Can we handle the truth?

Do you know how writers create? I have been writing all the way back to about the 7th grade, and yet it is still a mystery to me. Truly mastering the art of creative writing is extremely hard work. Writing is a solitary business generally, but many writers belong to critique groups.

I have been in a few such groups over time. My current group is quite extraordinary. It is filled with brilliant, talented people ranging in age from early 30’s to almost 70. Some members of the group have extensive experience with navigating the publishing world. I would say we run the gamut on religious and political outlook, but we have mutual respect for whatever the others’ beliefs might be. And, I might add, we have a lot of fun together. We meet every other Wednesday – since COVID-19 that is by Zoom – and we give each other feedback on whatever manuscripts have been submitted. If something does not make sense, we help each other figure out how to fix it. Sometimes somebody gets stuck and cannot figure out how to end something, for example. We will brainstorm and often inspiration will come.

As far as my own creative writing goes, I am a bit wed to the 1960’s and 1970’s time frame. And I write what I know, so my stories tend to be set in rural south Alabama. I learned as a trial lawyer and as a writer that it is best to show not tell. As a general rule, the most effective storytellers let the characters tell the story through action and dialogue. Having conceived of a character and put him or her into a given setting, what he or she says often surprises me. And let me tell you, what someone would say in the 1970’s is often vastly different from what someone would say today.

I first heard the word anachronism from my mother. I can no longer remember the example from literature that she gave me for an anachronism, but she said that it was something included in a novel or story that was out of time and out of place. For the most part writers have endeavored to avoid anachronisms although it seems popular to include them in satire. I am a bit obsessive about accuracy, so I avoid them like the plague -or maybe I should say like the corona, but it is easy to make a mistake when your writing is set several decades in the past. Choosing the wrong terminology or phraseology can be an anachronism as well. My 9-year-old character in 1970 would not know what “ded” is. Her 17-year-old sister would not say “extra” or “bougie”.

I noticed that around 2019 we started worrying about whether some word choice would be too offensive and that concern has continued to grow. We started trying to think of alternative phraseology for a character’s dialogue even when it meant sacrificing the truth of what a character would have actually said. In other words, we have started sanitizing the language so that the most sensitive reader in 2021 will not find fault with it. We run the risk of filling our work with anachronisms just to placate those who are overly sensitive to every little thing.

What is more, we worry about the dicey politics of some time periods. A fourth grader in 1972 cannot be doing a book report for Alabama History class on George Wallace even though he was the governor and a presidential candidate and arguably the most recognizable figure of that time frame in Alabama. It is too risky. It might turn a potential publisher off, and even if published, it might sour the reader. Bright and funny Sarah Jane would become a pariah.

What we have here in 2021 is a fundamental departure from truth. We are compelled to have a sanitized version of our history. Moreover, it must assuage the most sensitive of potential readers. There is no rule of lowest common denominator. We must aim to appease the minority – not simply the broader majority.

In my first year of law school, in Torts class, we learned about the concept of the eggshell-skull plaintiff. The concept extends to criminal law as well. For example, if I thump you on the back of your head and your skull caves in, it is no defense for me that the same would not have happened to a person with a regular skull. So, what we are dealing with these days is similar. The entirety of our words, actions and beliefs must be palatable to the most freakishly sensitive among us – even if it means we are actually lying and rewriting history to do it.

As a society, we have become soft. To paraphrase Jessep from a Few Good Men, we can’t handle the truth. Instead, we are making it up and rewriting it as we go.

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