Perhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.
Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.
We talk about true stories, which often are true but do not feel true, and fictions, which are often untrue and yet can feel true. We talk about “news stories” and “official stories” and “personal stories” as if there were not a deep gulf among them.
It is hard to overstate the danger of mistaking felt truth and literal truth for one another, and so much of our media fails us in this regard. They do not distinguish between the literal truth and the truth of experience, and thus they reflect our ignorance of the complicated relationship between the two. They are linked ideas, felt truth and literal truth—but when they become unlinked or conflated, the felt truth dominates. If you do not acknowledge that they are different, you cannot challenge one with the other; they are subject only to their own kind.
I think it is actually a disservice to talk about statements from corporations or government entities as “official stories.” They are, in my view, anti-stories—strings of words and events whose express purpose is to obscure or marginalize felt truth. With good intentions, this is done to present a clearer literal truth. With bad intentions, it is done to replace a literal truth with a specious emotional truth, and we have a word for that: propaganda.
And so we know that climate change is literally true, but we do not feel it in our bones. And some of us feel that others of us are immoral in our bones, but we do not stop to ask if that is literally true. And we tell ourselves that literal truth is in debate when it is not, because instead of using our felt truth to help us understand our experience, we use it to hide from the world.
Thus so often, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are focused on something exciting or entertaining instead of something true. We cater to felt truths at the expense of literal truths, as if there were no difference, or as if the former were an ends instead of a means. Things are exaggerated, not to reveal literal truth within felt truth (as O’Brien did), but only to make them sensational: hyperbole. Other things go unmentioned or misrepresented to keep their truth from being known: pandering. Despite a focus on truth, none of these are really true stories. These are lies.
I wonder if we will ever learn to curate our stories, to use them for context and understanding instead of letting them run away with themselves. Perhaps not; the structure of our society leads us to reject the literal truths we see around us in favor of felt truths that are really comforting lies—and to further tell ourselves the lie that we should be okay with this, because it is just the way things are. Such a disempowering lie, a lie that makes us cower in the face of a cruel world rather than seek to understand it.
The best storytellers among us, like O’Brien, weave together a felt truth in a way that makes literal truth more real, more poignant, and more tangible. They take our literal truths and imbue them with dimension and flavor and body until we cannot imagine why we ignored them. The best storytellers mobilize our felt truth as an asset rather than a liability.
So must the rest of us. One can only tell a really true story with an unflinching eye.
Image Credit: xlibber