Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Subtlety of Distinction

As writers, we are afforded a breadth of opportunity which must, in order to fulfill it's purpose, exist outside of the practical. In daily life, we manage the various functions attached to maintenance & survival. Consequence for neglecting these requirements is unique & invariably direct—if we do not sleep, we eventually become deranged. Writing offers a unique opportunity to skip the practical & allow life to be explored beyond the systemic.

For those of us who chose to write about history, the editorial approach to all creative work is tantamount in determining how actual events will be restructured o the page. We ought to research exhaustively, reading, then comparing all available materials already in publication, all manner of reference to a subject we have selected for exploration. It logically follows that the greater the store of knowledge we strive to acquire through careful research, then the more applicable the content we add to a chosen subject. Knowledge derived from previous research is essential to this form of writing & the historian with lazy habits will soon be exposed for their lack of scope.

Yet the page can be seductive & writers who have chosen to set fictional narratives within a sequence of actual events, these writers have the challenge of imagining a story occurring within the discernible facts of recorded history. The greater the range of detail available to a curious reader, the more authentic the exposition in their imagination. Writers of historical fiction spend years researching a given period & as more & more of the subtleties of a particular time frame are discovered, the narrative generated from this educated imagination is infused with precise condition.

The greater an accuracy imported from careful research, the more accessible the landscape of a fictional narrative. The combination of actual & imagined emerges as a sparkling example of how the imagination can be cultivated to construct an environment whereby the writer operates within clearly defined perimeters, yet is able to devise fictional narrative threads which exist within that historical framework. Anachronism is glaring—there were no computers in the Nineteenth Century & any attentive reader will balk at a similar suggestion.

For historical work to function properly, the narrative must correspond to rational understanding.
Not so simple to recreate is the ethical landscape, where characters draw their fictionalized paths of
reason & conditions of motive. How tempting it can be to re-interpret history through the prism of contemporary understanding.

A brave writer wanting to understand the rise of Nazism in the Second World War will soon discover the potential for offense in whatever editorial choices they settle upon. In this example, the question unsatisfactorily determined in the Nuremberg trials still has people wondering today exactly what did the German people know of the Holocaust being carried out in their midst? A simple intention, suggesting one position or it’s opposite can so easily ignite a magnificent reaction, from either side of the argument.

The desire to understand more fully can lead a writer into re-molding actual events into a sequence where the reader is encouraged to suspend judgment & empathize along the lines of recorded history which has been determined by careful & calculated editing of available documentation. What is included, albeit shrewdly, can suggest that the story has been altered in some way to allow the creator of a fictionalized tale the opportunity to provoke debate which might not have been possible at the time the actual events played-out. Fictionalized history then becomes a carefully manicured garden, designed to showcase only what is complementary to editorial choices.

Is there an ethical responsibility when re-visiting volatile history? Should we bother to raise questions which have already been thoroughly answered? Should an imagination be free to invent the conditions for a re-interpretation of pain & loss? Can the writer’s imagination provoke a fresh approach to the resolution of actual events? How can we ensure pure fidelity to the sensitivity surrounding events which contained years of suffering?

{Images by Arthur Dove}


  1. As always, Meredith, food for thought and thought for food. Best, John

  2. Thank you so much for the feedback, John. Delighted you find the blog meaningful. I hope all is going well with the release of 'Hungry Ghosts.' It's poised, waiting, on my reading list.