Monday, February 4, 2019

Truth: The Dance Between Author and Reader

I’ve been attending an ongoing forum at church where the instructor asks a lot of questions. Is your truth, the truth? Why is your truth more truth than another’s? If it all sounds like a freshman philosophy course, you’re probably right. It can be crazy-making. Is what I see, not what I see? Some might even call it gaslighting.

One Sunday he talks about a “dance” between author and reader. Of course, he is talking about the Bible or the Koran. The "dance" is the interpretation of the imponderable, the words of God. Everyone's interpretation will be different which is why there are five hundred different offshoots of the Protestant church, he says. People stick with their tribes to reinforce their own beliefs.

I think about writing. As a writer, you decide what lesson to share, what symbol carries weight—family, love, forgiveness, charity, hope. The reader will interpret your story, literally or symbolically. It's not the author's responsibility to tell a reader what to think. She writes a book. Then it belongs to the reader.

When we ask in the forum about applying critical thinking and life experience to our interpretation of the truth, he pounces. "What's wrong with that?" the instructor demands. A man in the group quickly says, "You can be deceived."

"Exactly!" the instructor gleefully shouts.

This, I suppose, is why one should never talk about God and their religion. It’s too personal. And telling people their life experiences and critical thinking skills can deceive and we all stick to our tribes feels like we might as well just keep walking the labyrinth outside near the church cemetery and forget about ever coming to a conclusion on truth, decency, morality. The instructor is probably twenty-five years younger than I am. He teaches college kids. Still, I listen.

While there are universal “truths” he concedes—for instance, love thy neighbor, honor your parentswhat does that really mean to you? Can I follow the teachings of Christianity and "love my neighbor" but hate the guy next door?

Can I honor my parents, but resent that they didn’t always listen when I needed it most?

Can I have loved my husband dearly but been in angry denial at him for dying?

Of course, we live in a very divisive society. Everything is either black or white, one or the other, which also fuels this dialogue about the truth. Be open, cast aside preconceived notions, question religious beliefs and dogmas, the instructor advises. But what about the lies? The lies we hear every day in the media, from the president and others? Surely, the lies prove there is truth, although even now I'm getting confused. He has no answer to the problem of lies, only offering a concession the next week, "Yes, it is okay if you are your sole agency," he says, suddenly doing a turnaround that if life experiences and critical thinking work for you, go for it.


I’ve edited many memoirs and novels—and I've written my own—yet, I always keep in mind that a story is just one person’s story. It is their journey, the way he or she sees life. The author reveals what this incident or that event means to her…and offers the takeaway. The reader may have a different takeaway, a different interpretation. That’s "the dance" between author and reader.

A writer challenges her perceptions, thoughts, truths. It’s exciting, scary, exhilarating, inspiring. A road and a journey not to be missed. Along the way, you’ve found your voice! You have chosen to make a difference in a small, but meaningful way. This is spring unexpectedly arriving in February, like tulips on the table in the church fellowship hall. You feel alive again.

But here’s the thing, the instructor says: "You are at the wheel. Your life is about making choices, which involves responsibility, and responsibility requires making choices. That freedom can be scary." He's right. It’s a risk, taking a leap, coming to a conclusion and putting it out there for the world to see. It's what we writers do.

My feeling: If your "truth" changes next year, write another book. That said, if you keep questioning your truth and your conclusions...keep chewing it over and over and over…you’re lost. And the reader will be too. 


Unknown said...

This is a very interesting reflection, Susan. I will be mulling it over!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thank you, Anne.

Unknown said...

I have read this again and am still thinking about it! As a memoir writer, I have found this whole writer-reader dance disconcerting. I think of an e-mail conversation about my memoir that I had with a former neighbor.She was horrified by a passage where my sister rehearsed in the mirror looking sad at our brother's funeral. I was surprised. I said, "I don't remember writing that." She said, "It's right on page such-and-such." I looked it up and sure enough...but it was just a little fantasy I had had a few years later, where I had just projected my own concern with impression management onto my sister! I thought the context was totally clear and innocuous. She took it as a confirmation of what she remembered about my sister. So much for truth in memoir. All the lines get blurred, even when you think you are crystal clear and sticking to the facts!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Anne, You are so right. "Facts" in memoir have nothing to do with "facts" in another person's story. But I believe experience and critical thinking count for a lot. I understand that it can disconcerting... as writers we try to convey the truth and it takes a lot of risk and psychic energy, doesn't it?