Some months ago, while I was on a Madeleine L’Engle reading (and re-reading) kick, I came across a fascinating quote about fiction. Two of L’Engle’s granddaughters wrote an Introduction that is printed in newer editions of the Austin family books. Here’s the part of their intro that resonated with me, and that I’ve been ruminating on:
“All of Madeleine’s writing, fiction and nonfiction, was an example of how all narrative is fiction, and all fiction can be true. She wrote and lectured extensively on the difference between truth and fact, arguing that it is through story that we human beings approach the truth, not through facts, which can only get us so far. [They would see their grandmother in her various characters, like Meg Murry and Vicky Austin.] . . . At seventeen, we were cynical about the blur between fact and fiction, and thought we could read our grandmother as if she were a book. In our mature adulthood, we recognize how rich and complicated our grandmother was, and that fact can be the springboard for fiction, and fiction can inform who we are and tell us about ourselves” (emphasis mine).
Sometimes, “Just the facts, ma’am” is required and appropriate, like with legal matters. But while facts do contain truth, they do not have a monopoly on it.
I am naturally drawn to Platonic ideals—unseen realities being greater than the seen/physical realm. I’m a very intuitive and spiritually-minded person. Otherworldly, you might say. (Or maybe bonkers. Haha.) I do read non-narrative nonfiction—it makes up a lot of what I edit—and find it to be helpful and enjoyable. But I am most drawn to narrative and outright fiction works. I absorb truth from them in much larger and more impactful amounts.
For example, take Ted Dekker’s The Forgotten Way vs. his A.D. 30 and A.D. 33 books. They go together and have the same message. All three spoke to my soul, but the two fiction books (the A.D. ones) much more so. In those books, we travel and suffer and learn with the main character, Maviah, an outcast who rises to become a queen. I saw glimpses of myself in Maviah—desires and character flaws and the need to learn the same lessons. I felt her agony when her son was killed, or when she languished in prison. I’m not saying non-narrative nonfiction is without emotion (it can arouse that in me too) but it goes so much deeper with fiction/narrative.
Probably a big part of it is showing vs. telling. We fiction writers constantly hear the advice: “Show, don’t tell.” It is much more gripping to be given examples in story form, with characters who face obstacles and make choices, than to just be told: “Don’t lie,” “Don’t steal,” “Help your neighbor,” etc. Think of Jesus’ parables, Aesop’s fables, or stories like the boy who cried wolf. They stick with us. We see what happened to the little boy after he repeatedly lied.
Stories also have heart. As an INFJ, I walk a fine line between preferring strong emotion and cold logic. (We’re the biggest thinkers of the feelers.) Sometimes I want all the feels, while at other times I need a break from them. But for something I read to truly make an impact in my life, for it to compel me to make a necessary change, my heart has to be in it. I have to “feel it in my jellies,” as Detective Pikachu says. Story/narrative/fiction touches the heart more deeply than, for example, a biology textbook ever could. I learned a lot about biology in high school and college, and I enjoyed the subject (except frog dissection); but I majored in English, without being fully aware of it at the time, for the stories. And those stories—Chaucer, Beowulf, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc., etc.—are what I remember the most clearly from all my lessons. They penetrated to my heart.
My life is a story. Your life is a story. The history of the world is a giant, unfolding story. Christians also believe that Truth is a person, Jesus—who came telling stories. Smaller stories, written stories, become truer when we read them and they make a difference in our lives, give us an “aha” moment, or simply cause us to smile and feel a connection to a character. Don’t undervalue pure entertainment.*
So write your story with heart, and always with honesty. Even if you write fantasy with dragons and sorcerers, if you let the truths deeply ingrained in Story saturate your work, you will be writing something that matters. You will connect with your readers. And you will participate in one of the greatest ventures mankind can undertake.
* It is part of what anchored me, kept me on this earth, through the blackest depths of depression. I may write a post about that later.