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.

FORWARD PROGRESS

Building Character by Looking Backwards

Mama was a high school history teacher. No, that’s not quite right. Mama was a history scholar who taught high school students to love history. I was one of those high school students, but I already loved history by the time she was my classroom teacher. Mama was teaching me to love history by the time I was cutting my teeth. She passed history along through stories, and boy could she ever tell a good story. The more dramatic, the better. My favorite stories involved the Greek and Roman myths, but her stories about American Indians* were a close second. She particularly was fond of stories about Sequoyah, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh. Her stories always revolved around people and they were limitless. Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, Julius Caesar, Rasputin, Queen Elizabeth I, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Catherine the Great, Ghandi, The Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln – just to name a few.

As I think of her now, with the benefit of the 52 years I spent with her while she was on this earth, I see how two character traits defined her. She was a woman not only of great compassion, but also of great empathy. I often saw her shed tears in the telling of a painful moment in history. Mama saw the good or perhaps the value in every human being. I suppose that could also be phrased a bit more precisely. As a starting point, Mama looked for the good in people. She did not begin by looking for the bad. Mama didn’t look for something to criticize – she looked for something to praise. Perspective makes a big difference. And even when she found the bad, she tried to understand the why of it. What’s more she could put herself in their shoes. She said not to judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in his or her moccasins.

Because Mama was a history scholar, a geography scholar and a religious scholar she always had the the time line of history and the advent of civilization in mind when she analyzed a situation from the past. That allowed her to put historical figures and events into the context of the times and places in which they lived along with the prevailing ideas, mindsets and motivations of the times. In turn that allowed her to see those people through the fullness of objectivity. She could distinguish between her own beliefs, morals and social mores and those of a past time and another culture. That meant she could greatly admire someone like Andrew Jackson while yet seeing the tragedy, heartbreak and travesty of the Trail of Tears. I never knew my mother to banish someone from the annals of history for being less than perfect. Indeed, she would use human imperfection to teach life lessons.

Decades after my mother retired, her former students still tell me of how she impacted their lives. She gave them a worldview in a tiny rural town in South Alabama. Mama did not merely teach her students the events of history. She used the power of story to instill not just knowledge, but character in her students.

Mama had quite a personal library. I couldn’t bear to part with most of it after she died. A lot of it is packed away in storage. Here and there I made a feeble attempt at donating it to some library, but I never have. After the year 2020, I decided I would not part with it. People are re-writing history. People are cancelling historical figures as though they never lived. People are banning the sale of books. My mother, who read Lady Chatterley’s Lover wrapped in a brown paper cover, would be appalled. A woman who spent her entire life living by the motto that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it would be mortified. No, I won’t part with her books or the lessons she taught. I will hand those things down to my children and grandchildren and hope and pray that they will as well.

*I am using the terminology she would have used in the 1960’s because I am being authentic.