There’s a scene in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five where Vonnegut’s narrator, writing about his story from outside it, says to a reader, “It is short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Indeed. Time seems to make less sense the more honest a story of war or atrocity is told. Homer would say it in his Homeric Similes to those who hadn’t witnessed the Trojan War. And Time O’Brien would write it later in ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ that ‘often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t.’
We now have enough tellings of real truth versus the spewing of facts that we should be inoculated against the misuse of numbers and details arranged to manipulate rather than inform.
Yet, here we are.
We’re often stuck trying to satisfy cries for writing that is straightforward and linear when the truth is anything but. ‘Why can’t you just tell a nice story,’ someone will ask. Or, ‘Why does your poem jump around,’ another will ask. And I’ll find myself walking a tightrope between the ‘true war story’ (I’m counting life in the Culture of Fear as a war story of its own) and the war story an audience wants to read.
Honest writing resists the desire to alter its picture for the desire of an audience.
It’s a tenuous situation these days, in a time when the audience can shop for its facts on the open market as if they are commodities. But it raises the stakes of the story that needs to be written and of the discipline needed for readers to open stories outside their comfort zone.
It is that – or we soon find ourselves walking out of our own self-contained bomb shelter that we’ve bunkered in for decades as a defense against ideas, only to find a world that looks nothing like the facts and stories we’ve been telling ourselves.