Defining Emotional Truth

"Emotional truth" is not the same as "truthiness"

If we say that Tolstoy or Steinbeck's novels are "true to life," we certainly don't mean that they are factual accounts, that these authors wrote non-fiction. When someone recommends a novel because it is "genuine" or "authentic" this is not an endorsement of its factual accuracy. We know this intuitively. 


Fiction is a lie that tells a truth. The lie is that the characters were or are living people and that the events in the story happened. The truth is an emotional one. It is, as Steve Yates writes, that "heartfelt connection that arises between reader and character or characters through the unfolding (and possibly the resolution) of an invented, narrated conflict. This truth arises through a combination of immersions in details, settings, actions, dialogue, inner monologue.... Without emotional truth, a key purpose of great literature, empathy, is hard to conceive."


Great and enduring works of literature are said to have an emotional truth, a core emotional experience, that transcends the time and place in which they were written.


In creative writing classrooms, there is a lot of talk about it but there is no widely agreed upon definition of emotional truth out there. Literary references like A Handbook to Literature  often do not have entries for emotional truth, and googling it is unhelpful (so far). But didn't I just define it above? Not really. While I like what Yate wrote, it more accurately describes the process by which an author communicates and the reader receives emotional truth, but does not define it.


In discussion between students and other writers, if one argues that an author should try to uncover and explore the emotional truth of a character or subject, inevitably someone will reject the argument, calling it Steven Colbert's "truthiness." After all, isn't there actual truth, which is supported by evidence? Isn't emotional truth just what a person feels and uses to manipulate the actual truth?


For example, I grew up in the South with evangelical family members and abortion is a very emotional issue for them. Many evangelicals believe that daily birth control pills are a form of abortion because they prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall. Factually, that is absolutely false and a serious misunderstanding of birth control, which works by preventing ovulation -- fertilization never takes place.


Nevertheless, this emotional truth (birth control = abortion) is so strong, it was used recently in Supreme Court arguments opposing insurance coverage of contraception. Lawyers for the plaintiffs actually argued that the facts about birth control were irrelevant to the case because while wrong, they were heartfelt religious beliefs. This is an instance of people allowing emotion to get in the way of truth.


But that isn't what we're talking about when we talk about emotional truth, is it? In the context of writing fiction or CNF, we're talking about writing in such a way that readers feel the joy, sorrow, love, and hate that the characters feel. That's different from shielding erroneous beliefs from evidence with emotion. The person who rejects emotional truth as truthiness is conflating these two things.


But can't a writer, or any artist for that matter, use the emotional bond that occurs between story and reader to manipulate that reader into believing something that is empirically false? Absolutely. And artists can and do make false claims all the time.

Consider the painting to the right, City Activities with Dance Hall  (1930-31) by Thomas Hart Benton. It is part of an epic 10-part mural America Today, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Some art critics have described it as depicting the causes of the Great Depression as the lax morals of the 1920s. In the painting we see women drinking in public, dancing, people watching titillating movies, and so forth, all relatively new activities during a time of social change.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

Sexual promiscuity and drinking did not crash the stock market. It was structural problems with both the US and global economy that caused the Great Depression, not moral laxity. Nevertheless, that is how many conservative Americans felt in the 1930s.


Herbert Hoover's conservative Secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, advised the president to "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate... it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people" (emphasis added).


If I were writing a novel set in the thirties, I might want to explore this erroneous, but heartfelt belief. I would want to capture and articulate the attitudes and beliefs of characters in that time period -- this was how people felt, and that is a historical truth -- but as a rational, responsible artist, I'm dedicated to empiricism.


The collision between our heartfelt beliefs and irrefutable facts can be a big source of internal conflict, especially when those beliefs make up our identity, (as being anti-abortion is with evangelical Christian identity). A story about such a collision and how a character either accepts they are wrong and changes because of it, or stubbornly resists (and is also changed by such stubbornness) could reveal to a reader a core emotional experience that transcends the particular issue at hand. And that is what is meant by emotional truth.

--  May 2014