John Gardner: Truth & Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Truth & Peanut Butter Sandwiches

In undergrad, we had two writing professors, one for poetry and one for fiction. Since at the time poetry intimidated the heck out of me (more on that in a future post, I’m sure), my college writing career was “managed” by one professor. This professor happened to be a really big fan of John Gardner, who has written several books on writing. I didn’t care much for Gardner then (though it struck me this morning that it might be past time that I re-read his books on writing and see how I feel now, years later), but one quote of his that stuck with me regardless is this one:

The writer who cannot distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.
– John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Is it really that easy to mix up truth and a peanut-butter sandwich? Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is that if a writer doesn’t know the truth, doesn’t know truth, and doesn’t use truth spread out (like peanut-butter!) all over her work, then the writer simply can’t write good fiction. Truth must be present in fiction.

But, you argue, fiction isn’t the truth! Fiction never happened! That’s why it’s called fiction and not non-fiction. It’s not reality. It isn’t a memoir or a biography or a historical account of things that actually transpired. Why are you bringing up truth at all? Fiction does not equal truth.

To which I say: you’re completely right. However, fiction must be, in its own way, truth.

Let’s blur the lines of the definition of these words and say that truth does not have to equal fact. Bear with me for a moment. In fiction, usually, the facts aren’t, well, factual or historical. For instance, there was never a man named Leopold Bloom or Stephen Dedalus, and they never did all those things that James Joyce wrote about. Correct. He made it all up. Though there is present the truth of life in both them and their actions because fiction has truth in it. It must, and that’s what Gardner’s quote means to me.

Gardner is saying that in order to write good fiction, we must utilize the basic truths about living. We must use those truths in our fiction writing. Truth in fiction is the character’s motivation. It’s love and family and loss and hate. It’s a reaction to what’s happened. It’s the way we experience reading that speaks to the truths in our own lives.

The cliche truth is stranger than fiction is true. Haven’t things happened in your life where you think, ‘if I read this in a book, there’s no way I’d believe it happened’? Even good fantasy or science fiction or magical realism have truth within them. If fiction doesn’t have that, what would it be? Sure it might be an entertaining story, and we might spend the book rolling our eyes or shaking our head at how out-there it is, but it won’t connect with us in the way a piece of fiction with truth embedded in it connects with us.

I don’t know about you, but that’s why I read. It’s why I pick and choose what to read and when. It’s why, sometimes, I set a book down and leave it unfinished only to pick it up months or years later and speed through it. We need a connection when we read. We need to see the truth in the writing, in the lives and experiences that are unfolding on a book’s pages. Maybe the truth reflects our own truth, or maybe it doesn’t. But the writing does and should reflect truth.

This is also why I write. I write to explore these truths in ways that I haven’t experienced in reality. And I want my readers to be able to pull from their own lives and emotions and experiences and actions and use them all in relating to and connecting with my writing.

If my writing didn’t have these truths in it, I don’t think I would be a very good writer. But I know that I’m on the path to writing good, nay, great fiction, because at the core of my writing, I want to speak to truth. I don’t want my writing filled with peanut-butter sandwiches, which are messy and sticky and consumed in one sitting and good for a minute but gone the next. I want my writing filled with truths that linger. Truths that stick with ua. Truths that make the writing come to life as an immersive experience and not disappear the minute the final word is read.

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