Monday, 10 October 2016

True 'enough'

Last week, I began co-teaching one of our creative writing courses with the playwright Ben Musgrave. And when Ben asked the class to write down something they believed in ‘as a writer’, I thought I’d take part in the exercise too. At first I was slightly surprised by what I wrote: ‘your writing needs to be true enough’. But as we started talking about our different answers, I realised I’d been thinking through versions of Ben’s question for a very long time.

The search for ‘authenticity’ and’ truth’ is a preoccupation for many writers. And at the same time, we’re often given advice like ‘write what you know’ – as if that will automatically confer some kind of truthfulness on our work. But writers are always champing at the bit to write what they don’t know, just as readers want to read what is new and unfamiliar. (Which reminds me of something similar I once heard a theatre director say: that an audience most wants an authentic voice from a world they’ve never been to.)

Writers quickly understand, therefore, that truth and truthfulness are very slippery ideas. What will happen to them both as our imaginations take flight, as characters drawn from our own experience develop lives of their own? And perhaps more worryingly, how can you be sure that your work speaks to your own wider sense of truth? Your feelings about the way the world is, or ought to be. Not all writers are motivated by such ‘moral’ concerns, but many of us worry about the ‘meaning’ of our work, and how that meaning translates onto our own values, our own beliefs about what is true.

The problem for me is that I always find it impossible to quite pinpoint meaning – at least, not without reducing what I’m writing to a banal platitude, or trivially obvious statement. It’s also impossible to ever say, once and for all, what I believe about something. Instead, I find myself constantly testing the things I feel most certain about, unable to avoid the possibility that I’m wrong, that things aren’t really that way at all. In other words, I never know what the whole truth is about what I’m writing, or about my own values, or what I think might need to change about the world.

Which is where true enough comes in – a strategy, maybe, to stop me becoming frozen in the headlights, confused and intimidated by the difficulty in achieving complete truthfulness or authenticity. I find that I can continue to have faith in something I’m working on as long as there is at least some truth – some moments of recognition, some details from my own life and experience which I feel, for now, I can stand by. Perhaps, for me, truth is like a single drop of dye in a pipette, with the power to colour an entire cup of water.

All this is why, when another writer comes to me and says that they are stuck with their idea – when they’ve lost interest, or belief in it – I suggest that they give the story, or one of its characters, a little bit of themselves. To hand over a detail from their own life. Because usually that tiny injection of the author’s real, lived experience is enough to re-vitalise the story, and rekindle the writer’s passion for telling it.

(cross-posted at