Finding truth in fiction

Thoughts are real, but not true

Thoughts are real, but not true

I’m taking the Power of Awareness online course with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield – two of my favorite mindfulness teachers. In her talk “Thoughts are real, but not true,” Brach explains that thoughts are real in the sense that we are  having them and in that our bodies and minds are reacting as if they are happening. For instance, if you are thinking of an argument you had in the past, a messy break up, or a scary walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, your body will tense up and emotions will arise in you as if you are in that place and time.

Our minds and bodies respond to these thoughts as though they are happening RIGHT NOW.  These thoughts can create a miserable emotional microclimate that we’re stuck in without even noticing how we got there. But they are not real. What is real is that we are lying in bed late at night three days or weeks or years or decades later reliving these scenarios. If we recognize these thoughts as just thoughts and let them go, we can realize that we are not there. In this present moment, we are not arguing, breaking-up or frightened. We are safe.

Fiction is true, but not real

It occurred to me that the opposite is true when we sit down to write fiction. The details of our characters’ lives are made-up, crafted from experiences we may have had in our own lives or created out of pure imagination. They are not real. Our jobs, as the writer John Gardner says, is to create “vivid and continuous dream.” We do this by building a story out of specific details in which readers can immerse themselves. The more specific, the more universal. The more we make it up, the more real it feels.

In doing this, we create something that is true to the human experience, so that our readers can see the world from another’s perspective. We endeavor, as the writer Mona Simpson once said, to write “emotional truth.”

What human experience you are attempting to capture?  Betrayal, love, fear, joy, loss, longing, ambition? If you are writing a story that seems to have petered out or you don’t know where it’s going, it might be helpful to ask: What is this story about? Dig deep and remember what it feels like to experience these emotions, these situations. How is your character experiencing being human? What is true to this human experience?

The human experience on paper

Mindful Writing Exercise

Tara Brach led a meditation in which we began meditating and then she gave us a word to think about for a few minutes. We noticed the effect it had on our thoughts, emotions and bodies. Then she chose a different word. Immediately, I could feel the difference in my body and in the types of thoughts I was generating. The impact words have on us is significant, and if we don’t notice what words our minds are generating, we don’t notice their impact.

Let’s take a cue from Tara Brach. Before you sit down to meditate, think of what you are working on and select a word that represents the true experience you are trying to capture. It could be love, frustration, anger, surprise, or joy. Then settle into your seated position, relax your shoulders, your face, your jaw. Take a few deep breaths, releasing them fully.  Now, say your word.  Meditate for a few minutes thinking of that word, maybe even saying it aloud. Notice what thoughts arise, what sensations arise in your body, what emotions surface. After you finish meditating, write down your experience.

Let me know what comes of this exercise for you in writing by leaving me a comment. I’ve been struggling with the tone of my narrator (what is going on with her? why is she telling this story?) and I think this exercise might be just what I need to figure her out. I’ll keep you posted.



3 thoughts on “Finding truth in fiction

  1. Susan Magee February 2, 2018 / 7:50 pm

    I love the idea of “emotional truth” being found in not sticking to the facts. The facts always ruin a good story. Great post! I will try it and let you know. Do you think this would work for non-fiction?


    • Susan Barr-Toman February 3, 2018 / 10:05 am

      “The facts always ruin a good story.” Ha. I do find that students writing stories based a life experience run into trouble when they won’t let go of what really happened. Sometimes the facts don’t serve the story.

      I do think it would work for non-fiction, personal essay and memoir in particular, which takes digging deep to remember what happened, understanding the impact, and for exploring the points of view of others involved.


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