Authors sometimes write themselves into their fiction. In my first Roland March novel, Back on Murder, Detective March is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of a fellow cop. On the dead man’s phone, he finds a low res photo of a nude woman. He thinks he recognizes her, despite the poor quality: she’s someone he has already interviewed, who seemed to be lying about her relationship to the deceased.
Now March faces a dilemma. This dead colleague was married, and March has already spoken to the distraught widow. She’s suffered enough without having her late husband’s infidelity coming to light. All he has to do to prevent that from happening is erase the photo. His thumb hovers over the button as he considers.
What would you do? Here’s March’s answer:
“I don’t have the whitewash gene. Part of me wants to cover for him -- not so much for his sake as for hers -- but I know deep down that the unvarnished truth is better than even a well-meaning deception. I’m not here to pretty things up, to give [the widow] or anyone else a reassuring vision of the world as she thinks it is. All I have to do is uncover the way things really are. I didn’t make them that way, and I don’t have the power to change them. Even if it’s tempting to think I do.”
The temptation to “pretty things up” isn’t exclusive to detectives. Writers feel it, too, particularly those of us working under the Christian fiction label. Some do it without thinking, as a matter of habit, while others are pressured into it. Pushing the button and making the objectionable truth disappear isn’t that hard, after all, and you can tell yourself it won’t make a difference to the quality of the story.
But as I said, some authors write themselves into their fiction, and I’m one of them. Like March, I don’t have the whitewash gene. I didn’t make the world the way it is, and I don’t have the power to make it different. My goal as a writer isn’t to reassure or to inspire. It’s simply to tell the truth.
The Revised English Bible translates Ecclesiastes 12.10 this way: “He chose his words to give pleasure, but what he wrote was straight truth.” If I had a life verse as a writer, that would be it, my twin ambitions being to give pleasure through well-crafted writing, while at the same time conveying a deep, even unsettling honesty.
When we succumb to the pressure to provide what March calls a “well-meaning deception,” often there are unintended consequences. Tidy and sentimental fictions don’t change our view of reality; they only undermine our confidence in the vision of those who see the world that way. What are they afraid of admitting? Can’t their philosophy stand up to the cold light of day? All those little deletions add up, and you find yourself laboring at a disadvantage. This is why Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t call her writing “Christian”:
“Unfortunately, the word Christian is no longer reliable. It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart. And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.”
In Back on Murder, March learns a little bit about the unintended consequences of suppressing the truth. That photo he was tempted to delete? It’s not exactly what he supposes at first. The picture is part of a different story, a deeper layer he would never have discovered if he’d followed through on his impulse to censor.
I’ve discovered the same thing myself. The little truths we hide are often what keep us from finding the greater truths, the ones that are only found at the end of long and uncomfortable roads.