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.



How to Be a Writer


If only it was that simple. If only we would let it be that simple.

There are those beautiful, yet elusive, times when both the ideas and the words to convey them come pouring forth. But then there are those times our creativity is balled up in a fist, holding its treasures tightly. As much as we struggle to pry it open one finger at a time, it won’t budge.

Why does this happen?

#1. We get in our own way.

We sit down to write, and we tell ourselves we can’t. As I covered in my Fake News  post, we question our ability to write or we doubt we’ll find an audience.

Or we sit down to write and the only thoughts that come to mind are that we should be doing anything, but sitting down to write. Instead of writing, we’re worrying about what else needs to be done. Tightening that grip on our creativity, until whatever time we’ve allotted for our writing has evaporated.

We need to be mindful that this worrying is what we’re doing instead of writing. By recognizing what our mind is doing, we can begin to put an end to these distractions. When these worries arise, take a deep breath and say, “Not now. I’m writing.” Let go of what else has to be done, and in my experience, the chores (laundry, dirty dishes, balancing the checking account) will always wait for you. You’ve carved out this time to write, so do it. If necessary, schedule time to exclusively worry right before or after you sit down write. Set aside ten minutes to fret and get it out of your system.

#2. We have no ideas.

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in . . .you will interest other people.”  ~ Rachel Carson

This is solid advice if we’re concerned about whether we’ll have an audience. Basically Carson is saying if we write it, they will read it. But what if we don’t know what we sincerely think, feel or are interested in? And therefore, we don’t know what to write. We don’t have anything to say. This problem lies outside of our designated writing time. Throughout the day, we are seeing and hearing and experiencing other people’s thoughts, ideas, issues whether it’s through the news, social media feeds or office gossip. We can’t think through all the noise.

We need to have quiet outside of our writing time to notice what we are experiencing about any given situation. So stop multitasking. Turn off the news when you get in the car or cook dinner. Don’t look at your phone while you squeeze in lunch at your desk. And remember all those chores you were worried about? Use them to your advantage by doing those mundane tasks – loading the dishwasher, washing the car, mowing the lawn, without accompaniment. Focus on what you are doing and where you are. Ideas will come and the next time you sit down to write, you’ll know what you sincerely think, feel and are interested in.