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.



Some Pretty Deep Shit

True Refuge

This winter I took a course based on Tara Brach’s book True Refuge with Penn Mindfulness Director Michael Baime. Over the course of eight weeks, he guided us through its complex ideas and intense exercises. This was hard work, but very rewarding.

As I’ve written before, when you first start practicing mindfulness, the focus is often on the breath. The goal is to become acquainted with our minds, since we spend much of our time on autopilot. When you actually sit and watch what your mind does, you can feel overwhelmed. Your mind is all over the place and you have little control over whether it dives into a dreadful memory or is already planning a romantic interlude with the person behind you in the checkout line. You learn to let go of each of these thoughts as they arise and return to your breath as an anchor.

Once you’ve developed awareness, — this ability to focus and to understand that you are not your thoughts, worries, scheduling, etc. — you can bring it to a specific thought, “take a step backward” as Brach instructs, to delve in and find out what’s really happening and where it resides physically in your body. You may discover a core belief you have about yourself (most likely untrue), such as I’m a failure or I’m unworthy of love, and let it go. (I found the Investigating Core Beliefs chapter very helpful.)

While this is hard work, ultimately it will give you more freedom as you unburden yourself of all these things you unknowingly carry around in your mind and body that affect what you do and how you feel.

At the end of Brach’s book and the end of our class, we arrived at the point when we turned this awareness we’d been developing on awareness itself. We asked, Who is observing? Who is the seeker? And in asking this question, Brach tells us, the observer, the seeker disappears.

It is this line from True Refuge that stayed with me: “Rather than being a human on a spiritual path, we are spirit discovering itself through a human incarnation.”

I walked around for a week, thinking: This is what it’s like to be human. This is what it’s like to be cold. This is what it’s like to hear a bus as it reaches the stop on the corner. This body, this limited human life, is how we experience the universe and how the universe experiences itself.

As always these thoughts, these discoveries bring me back to writing. Isn’t this what we do as fiction writers? We sit and wonder what is like to be our characters? We inhabit them, but at a distance. We grow aware of their bodies, their thoughts, the hopes, fears, and desires, the core beliefs that have led them to their actions, their self-image. But we can’t get carried away by any of these things and go spiraling down the rabbit hole. We must “take a step back” and see what is actually happening to create meaning, to create art. If we do our job correctly, we the seeker, the writer, disappears. Our readers never feel our presence.