I recently arrowed send and, instantly it seemed, my novel-in-progress flew from my desk in California to an editor on the East Coast. Before I clicked send, however, The Fire Trail had been rewritten with the help of a West Coast editor and other readers. Characters were developed more fully, I hope, scenes added and expanded, plot points remapped, histories made true.
I am enraptured by what is true, a true truth-junkie. In all of my novels I have tracked and tried to capture truth, turning this elusive and challenging quality into characters who live and breathe, people who people my pages. For it is the artist’s solemn obligation to attempt this invaluable and possibly foolhardy feat, this re-presenting what is true about you and I, our world, our very existence. It is a big and scary subject, and some of us do not want to hear about it, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
We call these realities “hard truths,” and they are ones which make some folks squirm: the definition of marriage and why the state should be interested in its definition, the sacredness of life from conception to grave, the need for freedom linked to responsibility, liberty linked to law, democracy linked to educated voters. Yet all of these truths are necessary for American culture to survive, indeed, for free peoples of the world to survive.
Approaching the election season, we voters must understand these issues in order to decide them. It is good and glorious that we have these months to debate truth, from all points of view. It is good and glorious that as citizens we can learn what is at stake, can recognize when truth is elasticized and remolded, is shape-shifting. In this learning process, we can pull truth back into its proper shape, return it to its true character.
And so in my little novel that flew through cyberspace last week I tried to pull these elastic truths back into their real shapes through my characters. The characters themselves, for that matter, are icons of many people I have known. They speak with voices I have heard. They have been molded with words as an icon is painted with prayer, so that they will one day turn around to face readers and say, “I am… so pleased to meet you.” Thus, the dance together begins, a waltz or a minuet, a conversation between character and reader, slowly, picking up pace and tempo, as the music of language is sounded.
Art is a medium of truth. It is a way of expressing the inexpressible, explaining the unexplainable, touching familiar notes deep within our common heart, as though we were an orchestra playing a symphony. The artist reaches into clay or image or symbol, tempo or melody or chord, and re-molds it to show something true about each of us. The medium is only that, a medium, material used to tell us about ourselves, who we truly are.
Unfortunately with the rise of advertising over the last century, truth has become malleable, slanted, slippery. And with advertising we recognize this, we are forewarned, and we hesitate before believing that snake oil will cure blindness.
But in the process, journalists, publishers, and politicians have been tempted to also twist and stretch truth, so that honest elections are held hostage to news media, be it print, video, or electronic. Shades of gray stretch as far as the eye can see. Colors and definitions disappear in a wasteland of relativity. What are we voters to do? We can only be aware, beware, and be wary of the lie that there is no truth, no right way forward.
And so as we listen and read, as we consider what direction our nation should take, who should lead us through the wilderness of our world, I am glad I created characters who live within the debates. I will refine them with honest fire, hammering and shaping their golds into revelations, beautiful and good and true.
For in the end, this is what we all desire, to know in truth where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going.