25 February 2010

"make it up so truly that later on it will happen that way'

This is an excerpt--part 4 of 8--from a 2003 essay by David James Duncan in Orion. whole essay click here The core of what your odd English teacher is trying to get across to you is here. Make sure you understand this before you really wrestle with the task of composing your paper.

THERE IS A SUPERSTITION—fed most savagely these days by politicians and news media—holding that what we hear firsthand is “true” or “real” and that what we merely imagine is “untrue” or “unreal.” News reports, for instance, are real, while the works of Tolstoy are not. This is nonsense. Insofar as literature enlivens imaginations, firms our grasp of reality, or strengthens our regard for fellow humans, it serves the world. And insofar as the president-character speaks scripts that deny life-threatening facts or erode the careful distinctions that sustain civil discourse and international goodwill, the “real” news report merely disseminates propaganda.

Reportage can, and daily does, lie. Even first-hand experience can lie. And “mere” imaginary experience can open us to truths that would remain inaccessible forever if we had to wait for reportage or experience to teach us the same truth. One of the greatest of human traits, for example, is compassion, which means, literally, “to suffer with another.” But this high art is seldom born in an instant thanks to “news” or to first-hand experiences. More often its seed is sown via a preliminary magic known as empathy. And empathy begins with a fictive act::

What would it be like to be that black girl four rows in front of me? a little white girl wonders in school one morning. Her imagination sets to work, creating unwritten fiction. In her mind she becomes the black girl, dons her clothes, accent, skin, joins her friends after school, goes home to her family, lives that life. No first-hand experience is taking place. Nothing newsworthy is happening. Yet a white-girl-turned-fictitiously-black is linking skin hue to life, skin hue to choice of friends and neighborhood, skin hue to opportunity and history. Words she used without thinking—African, color, white—feel suddenly different. And when her imaginary game is over they’ll still sound different. Via sheer fiction, empathy enters a human heart.

To be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, is to immerse oneself daily in unstinting fiction-making. Christ’s words “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. This deceptively simple line orders me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am not seeing you, but me, and then to treat this imaginative you as if you are me. And for how long? Till the day I die! Christ orders anyone who’s serious about him to commit this “Neighbor = Me” fiction until they forget for good which of the two of themselves to cheat in a business deal or abandon in a crisis or smart-bomb in a war—at which point their imaginative act, their fiction-making, will have turned his words into reality and they’ll be saying with Mother Teresa, “I see Christ in every woman and man.”

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that he was a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew. He also blessed, while dying, the Hindu fanatic who murdered him. In the Middle East, the Balkans, Pakistan, India, New York, Bali, we begin to see why. True, the ability to love neighbor as self is beyond the reach of most people. But the attempt to imagine thy neighbor as thyself is the daily work of every literary writer and reader I know. Literature’s sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving them. Ernest Hemingway made a wonderful statement about this. “Make it up so truly,” he advised, “that later it will happen that way.” This is, I dare say, Christ-like advice, not just to those practicing an art form known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or love a neighbor.

-David James Duncan

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