I was cleaning out my file cabinet the other day and came across a note I scribbled on a single page. It ended up in a “Misc. Writing Stuff” file. The note, in my hieroglyphic scrawl said, “Don’t forget the moment of truth.” I don’t remember writing this, nor do I recall the occasion under which prompted me to scribble it down. But this simple statement is good advice for all writers.
Every story or poem we write should contain a’ moment of truth’. Something is at stake, and underlying these stakes a tale’s hero, or a poem’s speaker legitimacy is based on universal fact. In popular fiction, the reality is often overtly expressed, sometimes articulated as a cliché.(To my own self be true, love conquers all, The grass is not always greener on the other side, etc..) In literary fiction and poetry, the veracity lies in the subtext, and the reader has to dig for it. Often this excavation requires a level of maturity. And the moment of truth may not be the author’s intent; Mark Twain asked his readers not to look for symbols or morals in his work. Yet writers inadvertently reveal the common human experience. The reader and his or her life knowledge is half of the equation in responding to literature.
As a writer I don’t consciously tell the truth; my characters or my poems unsheathe it on their own. I merely channel it.
Exercise: If you have a story or poem that isn’t working, perhaps it lacks a universal ‘moment of truth.’ Ask yourself what is at stake here? WHY should the reader care? Is there an important idea simmering under the surface?