Mark Twain once called truth “stranger than fiction.” Fiction, he claimed, has to “stick to possibilities,” while truth does not, but his words point to a bond between the two. Many have weighed in on the value of fiction, and I’d be naïve to claim my thoughts on the subject are original. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” said Albert Camus. Tim O’Brien reckoned that fiction is “for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
So help me God.
Like most, I was taught to understand fiction as the unreal, what didn’t really happen. So any way I come to it, I think of fiction as something relative to reality. And I guess that’s right. But in alignment with these thinkers I’ve quoted, I don’t think of fiction and reality as opposites, with one requiring the complete absence of the other. Nor do I think fiction steals us away from reality; rather, it enriches it. To me, they’re bound to each other on a spectrum of sorts. Reality is a hard thing to explain, and fiction shows us reality’s different faces, making it easier to understand. For different people. For different moments. For different relationships. And even if some fictional event didn’t happen in our world, it still shapes and reflects our world — and so you can’t invoke fiction without invoking some truth, too.
Before I let myself get too long winded, though, I’ll try illustrating my point with a quick story about my mother and a bedtime story she told me many years ago when I was a kid. Very meta, I know. Growing up, I had two older siblings and lots and lots of cousins with whom I spent a ton of time when we were little: summers down the shore, a million sleepovers with pillow forts, cookouts, holiday feasts, sports, school plays, the whole gamut — even a plague of chickenpox orchestrated by our own parents (which, in retrospect, was a smart move). We were a big family with more than enough personality to go around, and, like my Mom, I was very proud that I could remember all kinds of details about everyone’s lives. And when I try to understand why that was, I think, in part, it was because of one story my Mom used to tell me before bed: a fairy tale about our family.
The truth of stories wasn’t weighed by accuracy but by how powerfully they shaped people’s understanding of their world.
I loved all kinds of fantasy stories when I was little: dragons, witches, knights, goblins, mermaids, elves, you name it. Whether it was a Greek myth or a story from the Brothers Grimm — I probably knew it by heart. And at some point in time — which I couldn’t possibly pinpoint now — my Mom crafted her own clever story full of castles, kings, queens, and wizards, but the characters were all people in my family, every single one of them. The people I loved in my own little reality all had some fictional royal title attached to their name — usually tied to where they lived. I was the Prince of Narberth, for example, since that’s the name of the town where I was raised. And my cousin, Casey, was the Duchess of Villanova. It was a simple, clever formula, to my Mom’s credit. Clever because this particular story never ended. Instead, she created an entire world where the stories just went on and on and on. Every single night, I’d ask for a new chapter, a new adventure in this world. Sometimes they’d be about brave quests, just like in fairy tales I loved, or sometimes she’d tell of epic games of basketball or football, played between the warring kingdoms where my relatives reigned. And though it never ended, it became a challenge for me to remember everything that happened to everyone in this little universe. And, knowing me, I probably corrected my Mom more than once on the details of her own story, which I hope was more amusing than annoying.
My point about my Mom’s epic, improvised fairy tale is this: it charmed my reality. I can see a direct line between this fantastical narrative and the way I understood my expansive family as a kid. There were lots of moving parts in it, driven by lots of different people and events, and I think it helped me appreciate all the nuances of my world and the different people in it. Like all stories do, this one sharpened my memory. And the more I could remember about the people in my life, the more I could appreciate and love them. It might sound hokey, but I’m already talking about my Mom’s bedtime stories, so I don’t think I have a choice. And since I’ve gotten fairly corny already, I’ll throw in one more detail: my Mom always gets a little sad when we talk about this memory because we can’t remember when or how it ended. But I think that’s also the point — it never did quite end. It just kept going on and on.
Reality is a hard thing to explain, and fiction shows us reality’s different faces, making it easier to understand.
My Mom is one of the best storytellers I know. She pulls people in with impeccable timing and just the right amount of detail. I often try to pick apart what makes her stories work so well, and when I think through this particular piece of fiction she created, it boils down to how she let it grow from reality. She started with truth and then substituted certain elements until the whole thing lifted off into another world. That’s one way to write fiction. It’s actually the way I prefer to write fiction — though it’s certainly not the only way. I like to start by telling stories of my life or the lives of those in it, feeling all the grooves, the twists and turns of the details, and finding a rhythm that undulates through a peak and resolution just the way a good story ought to. And when I have it down in my head, I begin to add and subtract different elements. What if this were a different city? A different time? What if she were a little bit older? They more estranged? A secret relationship no one knew about? What if someone died, even? Or ran away? For me, I find it easier to speak truth to my reality when I’m writing in a world that’s similar to my own, but has also grown away from it. I feel more at ease letting my subconscious play when the people I “create” start as one thing, and then become blends of other things in a world I’ve warped into a new reality. A fictional reality. And when I start to let myself go in the fictional world, I begin to see some of the ways I feel about my own. It colors my memory. And how I process my present.
That’s just one way of writing fiction. Others favor the opposite approach, where they start by creating worlds far from what they know and then glean wisdom and understanding that they can apply to their lives. A friend of mine, for example, once wrote a screenplay about two feuding sitcom stars from decades ago, filling his story with the hallmarks of an era that far predated his own. But it was his, and he let his mind roam deeper and deeper into the narrative until one day he understood the feeling he was bringing to the piece. “I realized I was writing about some dickhead I used to date,” he quipped to me. It’s funny, but it’s no less profound. We shape fiction with what we take from truth, and we shape truth with what we take from fiction.
We practice our skills of analysis, emotional depth, conflict, resolution, and sometimes just feeling when we let our minds wander in other worlds that we create. And often, when we return, we find that those worlds were about something real all along, as if our own reality were parading there in front of us, wearing another costume. Fiction is just our memories rearranged. And it makes our memory stronger.
We shape fiction with what we take from truth, and we shape truth with what we take from fiction.
The word for truth in ancient Greek is aletheia. What’s so fascinating about this word is that it doesn’t mean truth at all in the original language. It’s actually a compound word that loosely translates to “what’s not forgotten.” In a culture that took great pride from its abundance of myths and legends, people didn’t regard truth as the absolute facts of real events the way we do today. It was what they remembered. And how they remembered it. The truth of stories wasn’t weighed by accuracy but by how powerfully they shaped people’s understanding of their world: the lessons taught, the ideals contained, the experiences reflected. To them, memory didn’t confirm truth. Truth spoke to memory. It was memory’s child.
I say all of this because, as we invite you to read these wonderful stories by these talented writers, we, the SixByEight community, want you to remember something: these works of fiction aren’t the opposite of reality. They are of reality. They shape reality. They color reality. And they do all this by exercising our memories in the various vivid, exciting, creative ways that reality doesn’t always allow. So, let your mind dive into these worlds, not so you can escape your own, but so you can appreciate it with new perspective. Might seem strange — but it’s no stranger than reality.
Thank you — and enjoy our creative issue!