Writing One’s Truth through Fiction by PortiaLily Taylor

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have.” — Oprah Winfrey

You have probably heard words similar to those of Oprah Winfrey regarding the power in speaking one’s truth. But, what is meant by “one’s truth” and how does that relate to a person’s writing, especially if that writing is fiction?

WHAT IS “ONE’S TRUTH”?

To answer this question, I first thought about what is meant by the term “truth.” I like the definition from Webster’s Dictionary found at https://www.definitions.net/definition/truth re “the quality or being true as …[c]onformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been; or shall be.” That definition clearly intertwines the concepts of truth and fact. Yet, every day we hear friends, family, and media pundits expressing matters that are clearly false as the absolute truth. So, is truth relative to one’s personal beliefs although they are contrary to “facts”?

Booker T. Washington once said, “A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good, just because it’s accepted by a majority.” This statement clearly implies that what is truth should relate to a universal principle and not to individual whims even if most people hold those matters as truth.

TRUE VS. TRUTH

To understand this dichotomy, I considered the views of Janice Bastani on her leadership coaching website found at https://www.janicebastanicoaching.com/true-vs-truth/. She finds there is a difference between “true” and “truth” and writes, “The word TRUE is your perspective of something. The word TRUTH is universal and cannot be changed.” Thus, some people, perhaps even a majority at times, may find something “true” that is not the “truth.” History abounds with examples of such thinking from most of Middle Ages society’s believing the sun revolved around the earth to a majority of people in some present-day communities thinking the Covid virus is a hoax. But, as Booker T. Washington said, a lie doesn’t become truth because it’s accepted by a majority. Truth is a “universal principle.”

As a Christian, I find the Bible as a good source of such universal principles. So, when I write “my truth,” I try to be faithful to its guiding propositions and incorporate them into my work. For example, I included matters regarding the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 in my book Sarah Finn. That historical event clearly demonstrates what I would call the universal truth that racism is a stain on society. I believe that to be truth because of my foundational belief in Christianity and its command to love one another.

In fact, many Bible verses express this universal principle such as:

“But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” 1 John 2:11.

“But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7

“I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.” 1 Timothy 5:21

So, when I wrote about the Tulsa Massacre and characterized it in negative terms as demonstrated by its impact on my novel’s characters, I was writing my truth from what I consider its universal spiritual and philosophical context.

But, writing one’s “truth” may also relate to writing from one’s one personal experience – a “truth” not based on personal opinion or a wrongly held belief in falsehoods, but a “truth” based in the facts of one’s own life. That idea of “truth” is akin to the Webster’s Dictionary definition of something that is in “accordance with fact or reality.”

I think that type of “truth” was what Oprah Winfrey was referring to when she stated there was power in speaking one’s truth. I find that taking this perspective in one’s writing does hold a certain power, as Winfrey mentioned.

WRITING THE AUTHOR’S TRUTH IN FICTION

An attempt to incorporate an event from the perspective of my personal truth may be found in my novel Sarah Finn. I was born and grew up in Oklahoma, the locale of my novel Sarah Finn. I went to grade school, junior and senior high school, college, and even graduate school there. But, I never heard of the Tulsa Massacre during all those years. I was shocked when I finally learned of the tragedy as an adult. I then became angry at the thought of how and why this important history was hidden. Finally, I was saddened by the revelation and disheartened to think of what “might have been” had all that violence and destruction not occurred.

I did not attempt to list the details of my experience on a factual level in my book. Instead, I tried to take the emotions I felt on a personal level regarding the Massacre and instill them into my protagonist. But, my book isn’t a memoir. It is a work of fiction and my protagonist is an eleven year old girl. So, the challenge was to illustrate her feelings upon learning of her grandparents’ involvement in the Massacre. I used my own “truth” as a foundation to write this matter from my young, main character’s point of view. In doing so, I hoped to demonstrate a more humanistic approach to a subject written in fiction, but based in reality.

Bringing in one’s personal “truth” may sound like the old adage that directs an author to “write what you know.” But, it is more than that. Leah McClellan explains the distinction in the Simple Writing website at https://simplewriting.org/write-your-truth/.

McClellan states, “So toss that bit about ‘write what you know.’ Instead, write your truth.” She then goes on to explain that “[w}riting what you know suggests you have specific facts, knowledge, or experiences tucked away somewhere. …When you write your truth, on the other hand, you go a lot deeper. …What do you believe? What, on a broad level, has your experience been as a human being in your community or country? What universal struggle have you experienced or witnessed? And what is your response, your gut reaction, your belief concerning your experiences?”

In the website Writers Unboxed found at https://writerunboxed.com/2017/01/26/speaking-your-truth-through-fiction/, Heather Webb also writes about this topic. She concludes, “In order to grasp why someone makes the choices they do, you have to understand the pressures they face, their traumas, and their belief systems. You have to, in a sense, become them. How would you feel in their shoes?” She goes on to find it is important to speak your truth by taking a stance that relates a greater message through themes and characters. Thus, writing your truth is the very essence of your voice as an author.

What the author has to say about certain aspects of life (philosophically and otherwise) bleeds into their narrative,” Webb continues. “You could also say the author’s backstory is funneled onto the page. Mix this philosophy and backstory with personal style and you have author voice. THIS is what readers connect to, either subconsciously or overtly.”

Using your author voice to write your truth may seem a confusing prospect to the author of fiction who creates a wide range of characters – with some seemingly devoid of any “truth” in common with that writer. But, writing one’s truth through their works of fiction doesn’t mean that every character has to embody the writer’s experiences, emotions, or belief in certain universal principles. The “truth” inherent in the life of a character need not match the author’s truth. But, that character’s voice should enhance the theme the author is attempting to project. For example, some characters in my book Sarah Finn demonstrate bigotry that does not fit well within my truth. Yet, the focus on their actions goes a long way in support of the novel’s theme that racist bigotry is a negative force as to both individuals and society. Thus, a character need not act pursuant to the author’s personal truth to advance the writer’s theme — in my case, that racism is contrary to the universal principle that we are to sow love and not hate.

TURNING TO ELVIS FOR A FINAL THOUGHT

Elvis Presley once said, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.” I believe that is true with regard to the writing of good fiction. The author’s truth can’t be hidden. It will be present in every word, every theme, and every emotion felt by the reader. So, whether that “truth” is based in universal, philosophical principles or an author’s personal voice, I recommend writers embrace their truth and allow it to paint the themes of their fiction with the “power” Winfrey describes.

by PortiaLily Taylor

IMAGE: Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

3 thoughts on “Writing One’s Truth through Fiction by PortiaLily Taylor”

  1. I had a similar experience to yours regarding the Tulsa Massacre. As a History major, I studied American History in grad school and never came across this event. It makes me wonder what other true stories have happened with the same lack of recognition. Nice reflections on your part!

    Liked by 1 person

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