The Size of Truth


What size is your truth? A funny question. But as I explore different media, this keeps coming up for me.

I was primarily trained in theater work. In a large theater, in order to communicate effectively, your acting has to famously reach the little old lady sitting in the back of the theater. Otherwise nothing; you’re performing for yourself. You learn to use your whole body, you learn to project your voice. The great days of theater before electrical amplification meant that the use of voice was almost synonymous with acting. When the great Italian Shakespearean actor Salvini was asked to name the most important requirements for an actor he said, “Voice! Voice! And more Voice!”

Today’s film actors would of course cringe at such a notion. Were a film actor to perform as if s/he were on a large stage, the results would be ludicrous. The camera picks up every nuance, every breath. There’s no need to do anything large. I once had an interesting conversation about film acting with magician Simon Lovell. He had acted in a few films and television shows (he has a very funny Jack Nicholson story I’ll tell sometime). His comment about film acting was that to get it the right size you have to feel as if you are doing nothing. And then cut that in half.

Radio, too, is an interesting medium. Unexpectedly, for me, I found radio to be much closer to film than theater with regard to the size of truth. Radio, it turns out, is an extraordinarily intimate medium. Listeners feel as if they are being directly addressed one on one. Any exaggeration in the voice is immediately discernible. The actor just has to trust that being truthful is enough. I recently was asked to take a poem I had written and record a reading of it for the radio. Despite recording it several times over, I was too big each time. I never did do it satisfactorily, in my opinion.

What would this mean with regard to writing? The size of truth in writing in some sense is just another name for good taste and sensibility. Some styles of writing are going to be big and baroque, while others will tell their truths in a more quiet way.

So far, when talking here about the size of truth, I have been talking about the “how” of communication. That is, how should we regulate the amplitude of our communication to fit the medium we are working in? But when talking about the size of truth we can also talk about the “what” of communication. That is, how important is your truth? The actor may have convinced us that there’s water in the glass, but who cares–why did your character need to drink it so badly in the first place? Some actors get stuck in the first obligation without meeting the second.

What about writer’s truth in this other sense, that of importance? Here lies the essential difference between non-fiction and fiction writing. The non-fiction writer achieves greatness the more general the truth–a paper that describes the general principle of the ability of all mass to warp the structure of space-time in its neighborhood would understandably cause quite a stir. But fiction writers–indeed all artists–are only successful to the degree that they can describe the particular. “There is no place for the general in art,” the Russian actor Stanislavski insisted. The artist’s truth is found only in the particular. We do not care about Danish Princes “in general,” we care about Hamlet.

So what are the important fictional truths? Not so easy to say. Easier to say what it isn’t. Pornography, for example, fails at art not because it shows us too much, but because it shows us too little. The truthful particulars of human relationship are obscured in favor of the immediate thrill. That may be fun or even useful, but it’s not the same as art. What kind of truth can writing deliver? It can deliver James Joyce truth, it can deliver Joseph Heller truth or it can tell us the truth regarding the slant of light through this particular window on this particular day at this particular time. I don’t know that I can do any better than that. The best art perhaps is that art which engenders an audience’s internal response which is not able to be reduced to another form–not even the form which first engendered that response. Then we know that art has done its best work.