Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Essence of Truth

Telling a true story can be more complicated than it sounds. I first realized this when my 8th grade English class made scrapbooks/autobiographies.  We had to write a page or two about each school year, from pre-K through 8th grade, but there were a few catches:
We were expected to leave our scrapbooks on display for a week so that anyone in the school could read them. This meant that:
  • We couldn't write anything bad about anyone, because they might read it.
  • We couldn't write anything that bad about school in general, because the principal would read it.
  • We couldn't write anything that we didn't want the entire school to know about.
  • Additionally, we had to focus on school, even if events outside of school were more important to us.
At the time that I wrote my autobiography, I thought it was honest. I was proud of myself for being open and not sugar-coating anything. But reading it a few years later, I couldn't believe how inaccurate it sounded. I didn't include some of the most significant things that happened during those years. It wasn't sugar coated - it was like I just picked all the marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms. I selected positive stories that I could write about truthfully, given the constraints of the assignment, but when you put those pieces together, it doesn't tell the true story of what happened.

In my college fiction writing class, I wrote one story that was based on my freshman year. When I discussed this story in my final portfolio, I said, "Most of the character and plot details are fictional, but the gist of the story is true."  None of the actual events or conversations took place in real life exactly as they did in the story, but when you put all the pieces together, it was very representative of what actually happened - more so than my 8th grade project which only included true facts.

When it comes to creative writing, it's not always important how much of the story is based on truth, and if you are presenting something as a true story, you can always explain changes to the reader. But the difference between being true in fact vs. true in essence applies to many situations. When you're trying to make a good impression on someone it's easy to paste a bunch of true stories together to create a picture that may not be accurate, and to tell yourself that you are being honest. But being true in essence is important in presenting yourself honestly because it helps you to figure out whether or not you'll really be happy in that job or at that school or being friends with that person.

Follow-up post: Truth vs. Honesty

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