Why are poetry and fiction so important in human cultures? What is it about the imaginative telling of a thing that thrills listeners of all ages, makes our minds sit up–criss-cross applesauce–and hang on the smallest word of the storyteller? Nonfiction and biography, the “true” story, is also compelling and engaging, but there is something about fiction, about the fantastic, the imaginative, the made-up, that sets fire to human imagination, across times and cultures.
Ursula Le Guin, in her profound introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, wrote of truth and lies in storytelling: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.”
In his famous essay, “Of Truth,” Francis Bacon discusses how the human mind bends toward the lie, how earlier philosophers spoke of poetry’s vinum daemonum, wine of the devil, the lies that draw the reader down the delicious pathway of imagination.
In my own estimation, Madeleine L’Engle got most deeply at the heart of this in her discussion of the differences between truth and facts. “Truth,” she said, “is what is true, and it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same thing. Truth does not contradict or deny facts, but it goes through and beyond facts. This is something that it is very difficult for some people to understand.”
“Tell all the truth,” said Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.”
More steps in the creation of meaning: Finding the deep truth within the fictive or poetic “lie.” Seeking new and startlingly relevant meanings in the strange juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated facts and ideas. One of my students added the word “speaking” to her word pool. “Is it okay,” she asked, “if I put this word with a photo of a woman with a zipper across her mouth?” Yes, oh yes, please–that’s the point here. And in that little “lie”–the woman, unable to speak, labeled “speaking”–you may have told a deeper truth than any of us can express in straight talk.
1. People who let themselves cry. There’s a priestly quality to profound and honest tears in public gatherings. Suddenly everyone has just a little more permission to be human, too. Feelings are invited into the circle.
2. A day off.
3. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the way his words continue to echo their challenges today. Will we listen to the challenges as well as the inspirations?
4. The deep truths that make themselves available in poetry and fiction and art.
5. Red cardinals in the sere winter landscape.
May we walk in Beauty!