So far this week, as I continue to explore what it means to be a writer in quarantine with the 2020 election fast approaching, I’ve written about fiction, lies, and conspiracy theories. Fiction is storytelling that asks you to suspend your disbelief. Lies attempt to create belief in something untrue. And conspiracy theories are webs of lies that trap you in beliefs that are untrue.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a writer is also the simplist; simple enough that I silently contemplate it nearly every time I come to a period. It came to me from the brilliant Anna Badkhen, who co-led a residency in Banff I was honored to attend. “Write sentences that are true,” she said. I imagine she is not the first person to say this. Her book, Walking With Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, documents a way of life among Fulani cattle herders that has persisted in similar form since the Stone Age. The advice to write sentences that are true has surely been passed on from poet to storyteller to poet in a lineage as long or longer.
I was working on fiction and poetry at the time. So the simplicity of “write sentences that are true” did not mean, “string together a bunch of facts.” It means: write sentences true to the world you’ve created; true to your memory; true to your experience.
In nonfiction, true and false appear to be a binary. But sentences can be true without being honest. If I were writing this series while employed by a political campaign, my boss would still expect me to write sentences that are true. To do otherwise risks the reputation of the campaign. A voter is likely to be offended by sentences they know to be false. A journalist might write about them as lies.
But as a campaign staffer, my boss, the voter and the journalist would all expect me to omit inconvenient facts from my sentences, and to craft each sentence to spin matters in the most favorable light. The campaign boss would push for more spin. The voter and the journalist would work to strip away the spin.
spin: noun. give (a news story or other information) a particular interpretation, especially a favorable one.New Oxford American Dictionary; Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
Synonyms: slant, angle, twist, bias.
I might write this series as though I were working for the Democrats’ campaign, with a goal of persuading as many people as possible to vote Trump out of office. I might spin every Tweet and breaking news story, dig through related scandals and lies from the past four years, cherry-pick the juiciest examples, and crank out fodder for social media. But there are plenty of people doing that writing. Writing like that might be true, but it is not honest or interesting. And it is more unnecessary than ever. Trump has made the case for his removal plain.