You Can’t Capture Reality

sleepy birdie

One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin