Thursday, 26 May 2011

Truer than Truth - Part One

I struggled to come up with the right sub-heading for this blog and settled for the inadequate (but not inaccurate): “Thoughts about science and writing”. My invitation from Dr. Paula Martin suggested a difference in kind between scientific writers and fiction writers.  I rejected “Thoughts about science and fiction” because I wanted other kinds of non-fiction writing to be encompassed in our discussions on this blog and in the workshops.

I also rejected the irritating catch-all term, “creative writing”. What kind of writing isn’t creative in some way? Even advertising copy and journalism are forms of creative writing. (In some cases they’re arguably fiction.) What scientists write is also creative, since so much of it’s based on speculation, hypothesis and giant leaps of the imagination.

So are there any useful distinctions to be made in the context of an author known mostly for writing fiction (and some journalism) contributing a blog about science and writing, as part of Durham University’s “Celebration of Science”? Are we talking about chalk and cheese, or just different kinds of chalk?

Comparing myself with science writers, I noted the following…

I write to entertain. But so do many scientists, eg Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. (Presumably no scientist writes with intent to bore.)

I write to share my ideas about the world. So do Dawkins and Pinker.

I write to educate in the broadest sense of the term, by which I mean, I hope that a reader thinks or feels differently about something by the time they’ve finished reading one of my novels. At the very least, I want them to know or realise something they didn’t know before. What scientist does not write with that aim in mind?

My writing is based on my observations and analysis of my life, other people’s lives, the world around us and the conclusions I have drawn. Ditto Dawkins and Pinker.

I write because I enjoy it. Surely this must also be true of such brilliant communicators as Dawkins and Pinker?

So is there any essential difference between what I write and what Dawkins and Pinker write? Leaving aside qualitative judgements (thank you), the most obvious difference between the writings of Gillard and the writings of Dawkins, Pinker et al, is that I make stuff up. (But then I suppose Creationists accuse Dawkins of doing just that.)

But my tendency to fabricate surely constitutes a huge difference between my work and that of scientists? Well, yes, but I would reject any claim that scientists are more concerned than I am about the essential truth of what they write, since emotional veracity and all kinds of authenticity are of prime importance to me when I create my fiction. In fact, if I wanted to tell the truest truth about something that really mattered to me and had actually happened – eg losing a baby or losing my mind – I would choose to write about it through the medium of fiction, not journalism or memoir. I’m at a loss to explain why this should be so, but in support of my preference I would cite an old Jewish saying: “What’s truer than truth? The story.”

But if, as the scientist believes, the test of all knowledge is experiment, the truths of the storyteller cannot be validated. Except perhaps in the heart.

Is this where scientists and fabricators (novelists/poets/dramatists) part company?… The job of the scientific writer is to transmit knowledge. The job of the storyteller is to transmit feeling.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly agree with your observations about approaching an issue "that really mattered... and had actually happened" by choosing "to write about it through the medium of fiction". There's something about a fictional character that allows the reader to 'put themselves into the story' and empathise with the situation more readily. As an author your experience informs your writing. As a reader, my experience informs my reading.