Literal Truth Is A Fantasy

What’s important is what you want the fiction to accomplish

Has a teacher or supervisor ever forced you into a role playing exercise? (Sure they have. Admit it.) Every exercise creates an imaginary character. You behaving in a manner you wouldn’t without the coercion of the exercise.

Phillip, they might say, in this exercise we want you to imagine you forgot to file an important contract and now you have to answer to your boss. But we don’t want you to make excuses. You must own up to what you did.

After the exercise, the facilitator will discuss your imaginary character and suggests traits from that character you should incorporate into your demeanor. In other words, not only do they expect you to learn from your imaginary character, they expect you to reify her. She is now you.

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Role playing exercises force you to interact with imaginary friends. (Images by Melanie Pierce and slideshare)

Let’s take it a step further. Your boss calls you into his office. “Phillip,” he says. “You’re attitude is a little disappointing. We expect you to be a team player, start taking our mandatory meeting seriously, and attend the after-hours functions with you co-workers. Even if it’s just a gathering for drinks.”

You reply that you’re not that person. You do your best work alone, can get more done in your office than a meeting, and you don’t like your co-workers enough to spend time with them when you’re off the clock. He says, “If you want to keep your job, you’ll show some improvement.”

In this example you are being asked to dress as someone else’s imaginary character—their idealized fantasy version of you. Nor is this play. They expect you to become the imaginary character.

Anyone who belittles fiction doesn’t understand reality. Reality is fiction. Not an illusion as mystics suggest, but our image of what our brain’s tell us the world should be. We forget our brains operate with limited data sets compiled from reading, experience, and (more often these days) social media.

Truth, Verisimilitude or Artifice

The Greeks believed art was a false imitation of reality. They strived for verisimilitude, never realizing copying reality still crafted a fiction. Similarly some critics claim fiction and imagination are bad for us without understanding the nature of non-fiction.

John VandeZande, author of the fiction collection Night Driving, shared a story about a bar fight in Michigan’s Upper Pennensula which ended with both parties losing. Someone asked, “Is that true or did you make it up?”

His answer? “What difference does it make?”

This answer will frustrate many but consider this: No piece of non-fiction can literally reproduce reality. To account for every variable, every event, every peripheral character who contributed to the outcome in some small way (also known as the “Lorenz Effect”) would be impossible. To relate the event in real time, objectively while covering every angle, would be impossible.

And boring.

Art, even when it strives for verisimilitude, remains artifice. We chose which elements of reality to model and which to ignore.

Every writer of true prose shapes the story. She decides who to include, which elements of the story to include, how much space to devote to them, and, ultimately, her conclusions about the event which will frame her presentation of the story. The result is fiction. The fiction might strive for verisimilitude, but, like the sculpture of a woman that can’t reproduce every pore and strand of hair (much less give her breath and consciousness), it remains a product of the writer’s imagination.

The better the narrative, the further the story moves from truth.

Perception and imagination are one

Ask any neuroscientist or philosopher. The act of perception is an act of imagination. Our brains construct a narrative about the world and shape sensory data to fit that narrative. No matter how accurately we constrict our narrative of the world, it remains artifice. Actively engaging the imagination, creating imaginary characters and comparing them to how we believe “real” people behave could very well bring us closer to objective reality.

No matter how accurately we constrict our narrative of the world, it remains artifice.

The important question for our families and psychologists is this: Can we distinguish between our imaginary characters and those we encounter physically? As long as we remain aware of the difference, no one should express any concern.

When, however, we can no longer distinguish between our constructs and real people, it’s time for those around us to worry. If not steer clear, perhaps even lock the doors and call the police or social workers.

Which brings us to the “post truth” era. When we use our imagination to entertain, understand the world and explain it to others, we engage in a constructive act of creation. When, however, we engage the imagination to manipulate and deceive others, we not only act destructively but risk self-deception.

Ironically, when our President accuses the media of presenting “fake news,” he’s literally correct. Unfortunately his version of events is more of a fabrication than the media’s. He is the classic example of the downside of imagination. He spent decades crafting the “Trump” persona, made it so convincing he felt compelled to slip into it.

When the President accuses the media of presenting “fake news,” he’s literally correct. Unfortunately his version of events is more of a fabrication than the media’s.

Now that he cast himself in a different role, his imaginary persona no longer functions and he can’t shed the skin into which he’s sewn himself. If, as I suspect, his imagination controls him and not the other way around, we should show concern and stop enabling his deep dive into fantasy.

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Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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