“Find your own truth,” was the advice author Ray Bradbury provided an aspiring, young writer on a radio call-in show.
Most people loathe vague advice. We want answers, we want that perfect answer the helps us over the bridge, and a super-secret part of us wants those answers to be easy, but another part of us knows that a person gets what you pay for in that regard. When we listen to a radio show guesting a master craftsman, however, we want some nugget of information that will explain to us how that man happened to carve out a niche in the overpopulated world of his craft. We want tidbits, words of wisdom about design, and/or habits that we can imitate and emulate, until we reach a point where we don’t have to feel so alone in our structure. Vague advice, and vague platitudes, feels like a waste of our time. Especially when that advice comes so close to a personal core and stops.
Bradbury went onto define this relative vision of “the truth” as he saw it, but that definition didn’t step much beyond that precipice. I had already tuned him out by the time he began speaking of other matters, and I eventually turned the channel. I may have missed some great advice, but I was frustrated.
If the reader is anything like me, they went back to doing what they were doing soon after hearing advice, but the quality of deep, profound advice starts popping up in the course of what a person does. It begins to apply so often that, we begin chewing on it, and digesting it. Others may continue to find this vague advice about a truth to be nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but it begins to infiltrate everything an eager student does. If the advice is pertinent, the recipient begins spotting truths that should’ve been so obvious before, and they begin to see that what their thought was the truth –because it is for everyone else– is not as true for them as they once thought.
Vague advice may have no import to those that don’t bump up against the precipice, and for them a platitude such as, “Find your own truth” may have an of course suffix attached to it. “Of course an artist needs to find their own truth when approaching an artistic project,” they may say. “Isn’t that the very definition of art?” It is, but go ahead and ask an artist if the project they are currently working on is any closer to their truth than the past pieces they attempted. Then, once they’ve completed that project, go ahead and ask them if they’re any closer to their truth. The interrogator is likely to receive a revelation of the artist’s frustration in one form or another, as most art involves the pursuit of a truth coupled with an inability to capture it to the artist’s satisfaction. Yet, it could be said that the pursuit of artistic truth, and the frustration of never achieving it, may provide more fuel to the artist than an actual, final, arrived upon truth ever could.
Finding your truth, as I see it, involves intensive knowledge of the rules of a craft, locating the parameters of the artist’s ability, finding their formula within, and whittling. Any individual that has ever attempted to create art has started with a master’s template in mind. The aspiring, young artist tries to imitate and emulate that master design, and they wonder what that master of the design might do in moments of artistic turmoil. Can I do this, what would they do, should I do that, and is my truth nestled somewhere inside all of that awaiting further exploration? At a furthered point in the process, the artist is hit by other truths, truths that contradict prior truth, and this begins to happen so often that everything the artist believed to be a truth, at one point, becomes an absolute falsehood, and this is where the whittling comes in.
In a manner similar to the whittler whittling away at a stick to create form, the storyteller is always whittling. He’s whittling when he writes. He’s whittling when he reads. He’s whittling in a movie theater, spotting subplots, and subtext that no one else sees. He’s whittling away at others’ stories to what he believes to be the core of the story that the author of the piece may not even see. Is he correct? It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t believe that the author’s representation of the truth is a truth.
Once the artist has learned all the rules, defined the parameters, and found his own formula within a study of a master’s template, and all the templates that contradict that master template, it is time for him to branch out and find his own truth.
The Narrative Essay
Even while scouring the RIYL (read if you like) links provided at the bottom of the webpages of books I’ve enjoyed, I knew that the narrative essay existed. Just as I’ve always known that the strawberry existed, I knew about the form some call memoir, that others call creative non-fiction. The question I have, is have you ever tasted a strawberry that caused you to flirt with the idea of eating nothing but strawberries for the rest of your life? If you have, I’m going to guess that it had more to do with your diet than it did the actual taste of that strawberry. A person may go long stretches of time carelessly ignoring the nutrients that this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry has in abundance for. They may suffer from a vitamin C depletion, for example, in ways that were not apparent to them, until they took that first bite of this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry.
That first bite caused a person inexplicable feelings of euphoria that they didn’t understand, until they learned of the chemicals of the brain, and the manner in which the brain rewards the person for fulfilling a biological need. The only thing they may have known at the time was that that strawberry tasted so glorious that they stood at the strawberry section of a buffet line gorging on strawberries while everyone behind them waited for them to starting moving.
I am sure, at this point, that the reader would love to learn the title of that one gorgeous, little narrative essay that caused my feelings of creative euphoria. The only answer I can give the reader is that if they’re suffering a depletion, one essay will not quench this depletion any more than one strawberry can. One narrative essay did not provide a eureka-style epiphany that led me to an understanding of all of the creative avenues worthy of exploration. One essay did not quench the ache my idea-depleted mind endured in the more traditional parameters, with the time-tested formulas and notions I had of the world of storytelling. I just knew that I needed more, and I read all the narrative essays I could find in a manner equivalent to the effort I put into exploring the maximum benefits the strawberry could provide, until a grocery store checker proclaimed that she had never witnessed one man purchasing as many strawberries as I had at one time. She even called a fellow employee over to witness the spectacle I had laid out on her conveyor belt. The unspoken critique being that no wife would permit a man to purchase this many strawberries at once, so I must be single and self-indulgent.
An unprecedented amount of strawberries didn’t provide me an unprecedented amount of euphoria, of course, as the brain appears to only provide near-euphoric chemical rewards for satisfying a severe depletion, but the chemical rewards my brain offered me for finding my own truth, in the narrative essay format, have proven almost endless. As have the rewards I’ve experienced reading others reach their creative peaks. As I’ve written, I knew narrative essays existed, but I considered most of them to be dry, personal essays that attempted to describe the cute, funny things that happened to them on their way to forty. I never thought of them as a vehicle for the exploration of unique creativity, until I found those authors that had.
It is difficult to describe an epiphany to a person that’s never had one. Even to those that have had one, I would say that the variables within an epiphany are so unique that they can be difficult to describe to a listener with an “of course” face on. I could’ve informed them that, more often than not, an epiphany does not involve the single, most unique thought ever considered, but a common place “of course” thought that the recipient has to arrive at of their own accord. When that doesn’t make a dent in their “of course” face, we can only concede that epiphanies are personal.
For me, the narrative essay was an avenue to the truth that my mind craved, and I may have never have ventured down this path had Ray Bradbury’s vague four words failed to register. For those that stubbornly maintain their “of course” faces in the shadow of the maxim the late, great Ray Bradbury inscribed in the minds of all those that heard it, I offer another vague piece of advice that the late-great Rodney Dangerfield offered to an aspiring, young comedian:
If a vague piece of advice, such as these two nuggets, appear so obvious that they’re hardly worth saying, or the recipient of such advice can’t understand how it might apply, no matter how often one thinks about it, does it, attempts to add to it, or whittles away at it to find a core worthy of exploration, I add, you’ll either figure it out, or you won’t.