Scientists Say the Darnedest Things
Back in the 1960s, my family watched Art Linkletter’s television show, which included a segment in which he asked children questions or vice-versa. This format gave rise to a series of books titled, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” The notion was that the simple, direct, unfiltered words of children can be wonderfully incisive. Their provocative questions can reveal that grownups don’t really know—or maybe haven’t even thought—about some matters that we might presume to understand (e.g., “Why do flies think gross stuff smells good?”).
On a recent visit to Clemson University to talk about writing entomological mysteries, my host—a very accomplished and highly respected scientist—asked me: “I get that you set your stories in real times and places, but how do you decide what to make up? You know, where does the truth fit into fiction?” I pondered this question and tried to explain that when I am writing a story, I feel that it is all true in an important sense. How could this be the case?
My short answer is that the words on a page accurately reflect the events unfolding in my imagination. There are many times that I struggle to truly hear what Riley is saying, visualize what Carol is seeing, or experience what Dennis is feeling. Consider the following. If you dreamed about riding a horse but then told someone you dreamed about riding a purple unicorn, wouldn’t this be untrue—even though the horse didn’t exist outside of your mind? For me, writing fiction is like that.
Philosophers, who deal with even more awkward questions than those asked by kids and scientists, have come up with various answers to: What is truth? Basically, there are three possibilities. Truth is what matches reality (correspondence); what fits together with our beliefs (coherence); what works (pragmatism). And so, in a wonderfully weird way, when I write fiction, I am pursuing the most rigorous of these forms of truth—correspondence.
Look at it this way. If a scientist reported that she saw a green bird, would this be an objectively true account of the world? Well, no. Color perception is an interaction between what’s “out there” and our sensory system. If you think that green is just the experience of some wavelength, then stare at a pink note card and then look at a white wall. You’ll see a green rectangle, but there’s no “green light” causing this experience (or check out this incredible color illusion). So is the scientist just making up the greenness of the bird? No, but much (perhaps all) of what we report about external reality is an interaction between our minds and the world.
And I’m not making that up!