Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Mea Culpa

This week we are writing about craft, in particular about telling the truth: Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”
Should I, as an author be concerned about the impact of my stories on the reader? Is there a point where I believe that truthful is too truthful? Have I ever cut something from my book for fear of offending somebody?

What a timely topic. This morning I received an email from a fan who thought I mishandled an incident in which a Black man who is a character in almost all my Samuel Craddock books, Truly Bennett, is treated in an insensitive way. And she was right. He gets badly injured and is taken to the hospital. Although Craddock takes the attack seriously, I never again showed anything about the consequences of the attack on Bennett. Craddock is solely focused on the travails of his white neighbor, and never checks  back to see how Bennett is faring. My fan did not write an angry letter, she simply pointed out the insensitivity of not having Craddock worry about Bennett after he takes him to the hospital.

I went back and looked at the passage and she was right. It was obvious that I was focused totally on the white characters and never thought any more about what happened to the Black man who was injured while doing a job for Craddock--protecting horses.

So I have to answer that yes, an author should be concerned about the impact of stories on the reader. This incident is a small corner of a much larger book, but it would have taken only a sentence or two to have Craddock show continued concern for the injured man—and to satisfy my reader who was painfully aware of the lack of care about him. So when I say the impact of stories, I’m talking about not just the main story, but the minor stories that make up the whole of the book.

Here's the book:

I’m talking about assumptions here. The deeper assumption is that my readership will mostly be White people and that the man’s injury will not concern them. I can’t say I ever picture my readers or think of who is reading my books. But in that vague background of assumptions is that what I care about is what readers will care about. In this particular book, Craddock does focus on finding the perpetrator of the attack, but not on the victim’s pain. My assumption was that Craddock’s concern about justice is enough. What I failed to explore further was the humanity of the situation. The humanity of the Black character.

Now I don’t think writers should beat themselves up for every little slip, but we also need to learn as we grow as writers. And to answer the rest of the question, no I don’t there is such a thing as “too truthful.” I have never, and can’t imagine, cutting something from my books for fear of offending someone. But I think the “truth” has to be the whole truth, and not just the convenient parts. In another of my books, a major character is unexpectedly racist. I thought hard about whether to include that. I didn’t have to include it, except for one thing: that’s who the character was. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a writer if I had consciously demurred on the truth of her character. A Black friend groaned when I told her that would be in the book, but she said of course I had to include it. That was reality.

The greater question might be, do we have to depict reality? My answer is a resounding yes. That doesn’t mean that things we write have to be things that actually happened. It means we have to try to reach the truth at the heart of our books. Beauty. Ugliness. Sadness. Happiness. All the in-betweens. We have to try to get at the range of human experience. If that means we have to step out of polite society, so be it.

The odd thing is that this is the only book I've published that got a bad review from a critic. He said he could not believe that something like that could actually happen to a woman. And, in fact, it's based in truth. And many women told me that they believed it and understood it wholeheartedly. Which illustrates that blindness to reality can be everywhere. It's our job as writers to throw a light in those dark corners where disbelief lives.

To go back to my original paragraph, in a way my transgression in being careless about what happened to Truly Bennett was a true depiction of the way our society has treated people of color—as useful characters in white lives, but whose humanity has been given short shrift. I hope we can do better. I hope I can do better. As a writer, I think it’s incumbent upon me to not be careless, and  to push for the greater truth.


Sherry Fields said...

Good post

Susan C Shea said...

The lesson you learned is one we can all learn - I appreciate your giving me the perspective. Good post.

Abir said...

Terry. This is an amazing piece. I had never considered this angle before. Thanks for writing it!