“[T]ruth is always subversive.”
“[T]ruth is always subversive,” writes Anne Lamott.
And how. The truth is also always dramatic, emerging in our lives like the climax in a great tragic play. Long before the appearance of the film entitled Stranger than Fiction, starring Will Farrell, people commented on how much more revealing, shocking, horrifying, devastating, etc. the events of real life are then anything conceived of from nothing, by the mind alone. If asked to apply a value to “the truth,” ie. is it inherently good or bad, our initial inclination is to say that the truth is good, evoking the cliche that honesty is always the best policy. But Lamott’s claim suggests that the truth is traitorous, treacherous, seditious, destructive. So while the act of truth telling itself carries a positive value, the content conveyed is often another matter entirely, particularly when the truth is withheld for extended periods of time, say a year or even a lifetime. What we don’t know, aren’t told, almost always does hurt us. I wonder, then, if truth is always subversive, what is falsehood always? secretive? selfish? oppressive? and all too commonplace?
Both truth and falsehood are dramatic: in fact, these two concepts have laid at the heart of the debate about the (de)merits of theatre since the genre’s inception. Defenders of drama assert its ability to reveal truths about the human condition; opponents of drama (those who espouse what scholar Jonas Barish described years ago as the anti-theatrical prejudice) scorn its ability to conceal, deceive, and corrupt humankind, largely because acting, by its very nature, compels one to appear to be someone other than oneself. In everyday life and on stage, we must experience both sides of the truth/falsehood binary: we must know pain in order to appreciate pleasure, we must know the darkness of being duped, of foul play, in order to know the light and liberation of fair play.
In the final chapter of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, from where the opening quote of this post is taken, Lamott discusses how writers can channel their mundane and extraordinary life experiences into creating powerful literature. From the quirky old coupon lady in line in front of you at the grocery store to the crazy duplicitous ex, they all can (and should, LaMott insists) have a place in your writing. The key is to sculpt these authentic experiences, observations, revelations, into something entirely original. I’ll let one of Lamott’s humorous tips serve as a conclusion to this brief blog musing on truth in life and writing: “If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forward.”
Here’s to the truth. And Ann Lamott’s book, a useful and enjoyable read, in which truths are always forthcoming.