Tag Archive for truth


And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.

—George Orwell, 1984

One slim silver lining in the dark, towering cloud of recent events is a new respect for truth. People – even liberals – have in the past tended to be rather cavalier about this notion. Now, in light of lies and errors writ large on the world stage, we realized that truth matters.

I ask my philosophy students to define truth by filling in the following open sentence.

A statement (or belief) is true if and only if ….

They give answers that boil down to the following.

(1) ….if and only if I believe it.

(2) … everyone (or most people) believe it.

(3) …it can be proved.

(4) …it matches reality. (Only one or two in each class come up with this.)

And then we go through these and discover (with only the smallest prodding from me) that (1) (2) and (3) are incorrect. Obviously there are tons of things that I once believed that I now know are false – e.g., Santa Claus exists. Same for you. So, (1) is incorrect. There was a time (long time) when everyone who thought about it believed that the earth was stationary. They were wrong. The earth didn’t chug into motion in the fifteenth century. So, (2) is incorrect. There are pairs of statements: e.g. “Julius Caesar had type A+ blood.” And “Julius Caesar did not have type A+ blood” neither of which can be proven, but one of which must be true. Also perhaps more interestingly “God exists” and “God does not exist.” So, (3) is incorrect.

How about (4)? Well, I kinda like (4) although I would express it slightly differently:

A statement is true if and only if things are the way the statement says they are (were, will be – for past and future tense statements). It’s hard to find a counterexample to that one.

My students sometimes complain: “But (4) is circular.”

No, it’s not. It would be circular if it used the word “true” to define truth but it doesn’t do that. It uses words which mean the same as truth but that’s not circular. If you define a square as a figure with four equal sides and a right angle, your definition is not circular.

“But (4) is useless.”

Well, not exactly. It gives some pretty simple advice. If you want to know whether your statement is true, go look at the world – look at the things you are talking about – go see if ships fall off the edge of the horizon, go explore the heavens to find out whether the earth moves, go look for miracles and religious experiences and good theistic arguments if you want to know whether God exists.

“But in many cases we can’t find out whether (4) applies.”

Absolutely. But that’s because we are small, imperfect creatures. Why should we expect to know all the truths? Why should we expect a definition of truth to give us an algorithm for telling in each case whether a statement is true? That would be a miracle in itself and worth a lot to someone playing the stock market.

There are complications of course. Some statements are ambiguous. In some cases there may well be no matching reality. (Some people think moral claims are like this.) But that doesn’t refute my (and Aristotle’s) favorite definition. It just means that we have to clarify what we mean and recognize that some statements are false and their denials are false too.

The main complaint my students have about (4) is that it is boring. They were hoping for something sexier. Well, so be it. It’s better to be boring than wrong.

But I find something appealing about it. Truth is what really happened. Exactly how many people were on that mall. Exactly what he was thinking when he claimed that his victory was the biggest. Exactly what will happen when we repeal the ACA. Even if truth sometimes eludes our investigative powers, it is worth pursuing.

Author’s bio: Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University. She has published short stories at Cirque,Everyday Fiction, Wordhaus, Oxford Magazine, and Short Fiction Break (first place contest winner). When not writing philosophy or fiction, she enjoys spending time with her husband and twin teenage sons, walking, reading, playing chess and watching Shakespeare. Find her work here: https://franceshowardsnyder.wordpress.com/fiction/

Managing Relationships with Family while Writing About Them

by Laurel Leigh 

What should come first? Publishing your memoir or preserving family relationships? Sometimes writers feel they have to choose—on occasion, they do. We’ve all heard stories about what happened when the family flipped out over a memoir someone published.

I am a rather reluctant memoirist. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I would at some point write memoir. That changed exactly on Tuesday, December 19, 2006, about ten o’clock in the morning, when my youngest sister called me from Idaho to say that the two-year-old son of our nephew’s girlfriend had been killed, and that the police believed that our nephew had done it. A few days later, our 21-year-old nephew was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

I was working on a fiction piece at the time, and over the next weeks I kept trying to write fiction, and the scene would turn into what was happening with my nephew, Anthony. After a couple months, I put the fiction down and worked on the memoir.

I didn’t tell anyone what I was writing about. For months, I couldn’t bring myself to even talk to anyone outside of our family about what was going on. My family was sending e-mails and making phone calls back and forth, and I would save all the e-mails to use in my project. It started to really affect me, because I was spying on my family. We would have a very personal conversation, and then I would go write about it that night. I began to feel very splintered, very two-faced, betraying my family by sneaking around behind their backs to write about them. I would sort of lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t intend to publish this story, that I was just writing it as therapy. But that was a lie, and I knew it was a lie.

What I was during this time was a first-time memoirist who lacked the coping skills for being a memoirist. When I write short stories, I often take kernels of memories from my life and use them as the basis for a story—but I push and pull those memories any way I want, and mix up different memories and people with made-up stuff and made-up people to come up with plot lines that often don’t come close to resembling what actually happened. But with this essay that I wasn’t admitting was a memoir, I couldn’t change any of the outcomes. I couldn’t write the baby back to life. I couldn’t write my nephew out of jail. I couldn’t write myself or my family back to any degree of normalcy.

The case dragged on for more than a year until my nephew accepted a plea deal. Afterward, with him now in prison, we had a family meeting in Idaho. It was time to tell my family about the memoir. I was afraid that they were going to hate me for sneaking around behind them to write about them. I was prepared to quit the project and not work on it anymore. I was trying to apologize at the same time I was explaining what I’d been writing about. I was scared that this might be the last time I would see my family, because they wouldn’t want to talk to me anymore. I told them about the manuscript, and they were like, “Oh, of course you’ve been writing about this. That’s what you do.”

After everything I had built up in my mind, it was this bizarrely anticlimactic moment, where not only were they not angry with me, they weren’t even surprised, and they were even casual about it. I kept telling them that I’d been saving their e-mails and writing down stuff they did and said in private, and they were like, “Okay.”

“We don’t need to look good in the story,” they said. “Just tell the truth, and maybe someone can learn from it.”

Not every family will react as mine did. It’s only this one experience I can tell you about. However, as my family placed their unconditional trust in me, I began to realize that it was my responsibility to take the highest level of care in writing about their private lives. I started to think about the spectrum of exploitation. Yes, I’m exploiting my family by writing about them. I’ve now been paid to do so. Yes, I have their approval to do so. Yes, I’m revealing facts about their private lives in order to tell our nephew’s story fully. But I can also decide as carefully as I can when something is an indecent violation of privacy. That for me has become a guideline to apply in deciding what to include and leave out of any memoir piece I write. That, I think, is the basis for establishing and preserving the integrity of a memoir project.

Of course I don’t presume that every family will support a memoir. Regardless of their stance, I do think that as a memoirist you have a responsibility to let your love and respect for other people guide your choices. That doesn’t mean you shirk away from hard truths, but it does mean you assess as best you can and with the best side of yourself what you’re going to reveal about other people’s lives. If you do that, even though maybe not everyone will be pleased with your final result, you can, I think, begin to sleep at night. 

Here are some questions I have found useful to ask and answer as I write memoir:

Write down the word “memoir.” What are three emotions that you associate with your memoir? 

Now write down the word “family.” What are three emotions that you associate with your family?

Was there any overlap in the emotions you listed?

What type of memoir are you writing? A personal memoir, in which you are the central figure? A family memoir, in which members of your family feature significantly? A mix? Friends? How far outside your circle of close family and friends does your memoir extend?

Write down the names of one or two people who factor heavily in your memoir. Now write down the first emotion that comes to mind when you think about that person.

Do you feel angst or even anger toward anyone about whom you are writing? Why? Is your anger creeping into the text to the degree that it obscures the credibility of the narration? How can you adjust for that tendency to yield a text with a less judgmental tone?

If you haven’t told them already, how do you want your family and/or friends to react to learning that you’re writing a memoir in which they feature. How do you think they will react?

Have you told anyone in your family that you’re writing a memoir and what it is about? If you haven’t told them, do you plan to and when?

Are their certain family members that you don’t care what they think, and are there family members whose opinions matter more to you?

Try to winnow down who in your family might be affected by this memoir and why. Who are you actually writing about? Aside from anyone on your list, who else in the family might care for other reasons, such as feeling family privacy might be violated or the family embarrassed by your topic?

Do you think everyone in your family will want to read your memoir? Do you think some people in your family won’t want to read your memoir? Do you want anyone in your family to read your memoir?

Who in your family will give you formal permissions to write about them. Who won’t? How will that affect what you include? (Expect a publisher to have permissions guidelines that will also affect what they agree to publish.)

This is a compound question. What particular parts of your memoir are you worried about having your family read. Why? Have you done your best to give an honest representation of the facts? Are you ready to show your material to your family? Why or why not?

Who do you think this memoir belongs to? Is it feasible to enlist your family in revising your memoir to more fully represent its truths? What compromises are you and they willing to make?

What is more important to you? Your relationship with your family or your relationship with your memoir? Which would you choose if you had to choose?

Of course, the answers to these questions will be different for each writer and for each project. I certainly don’t presume to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to keep asking the questions.

laurel_leigh-014Author’s Bio:  Laurel Leigh, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer and editor and the author of the blog Dear Writers. Her short memoir about her nephew was published in The Sun
(Issue #463, July 2014, “We Should Do Something”). Another excerpt of the story was published in Clover, A Literary Rag (Issue #10, Winter 2015, “Nursey”) and has received a Pushcart Nomination.