When I was about twelve and living in Dublin, Ireland with my family, I attended a Catholic school for girls that was run by the St. Joseph of Cluny order. The nuns were housed in a convent attached to the school. As the end of the year approached, my class was told we would not be allowed to have the traditional end-of-year field trip because the class before ours, on their trip, had been “shocking appalling” in their behavior. The nuns didn’t want to risk a repeat performance. We felt it was unfair that we were being penalized for the behavior of other students and the class decided to write a letter of protest. Hillary Minogue, Jill Macken and I volunteered to write this letter at the request of the class. After the letter was submitted to Sister Stephen she called the whole class into the assembly hall and made us stand in a line. We were told that everyone who supported the letter should remain where they were and everyone else should stand off to the side. Within thirty seconds, I was the only one who hadn’t moved.
A back and forth then ensued. I said to Hillary and Jill: “We WROTE the letter.”
“Yes,” they said, “but we don’t support it.”
“Of course we support it — we WROTE it.”
“No — we don’t support it. We just wrote it.”
This went on for some time. The purpose of the exchange for me was not to persuade my fellow students to do the right thing — even at that age I realized that wasn’t going to happen — but to make Sister Stephen understand that there were actually more students responsible than just me. I simply happened to be the only one willing to tell the truth about it (in that particular situation I hasten to add. I was no paragon in other circumstances.) Presumably I would now be punished for this while all those wriggling out from under the responsibility — the rest of the class — would get off scot free. Such are the lessons learned in school. As it happened, I don’t think any of us were punished but we did have to listen to a tirade from Sister Stephen who seemed incensed by our audacity in protesting her decision. Since it’s been 42 years since this happened, perhaps it’s time to let that one go. But I’ll never forget what it taught me about human nature.
I love this aphorism because it says so much about human nature. Truth often commands a price — sometimes a high one. I think it’s instructive to look at our society and ask: Who do we reward for perverting the truth? Who do we punish for exposing it? When do we turn a blind eye because the truth is just too messy or inconvenient? When do we fail to acknowledge truth because it’s easier to keep our mouths shut? And in what situations is keeping our mouths shut, or outright lying, necessary for survival? Because let’s face it — sometimes it is.
I wonder if one of the biggest truths the human species collectively ignores is this: human nature seems to have a profound capacity for creating unnecessary suffering. I have a fantasy that there will be a global agreement about this point, and a determination that extends to all countries and cultures to change human nature for the better. Can human nature be changed? The only way to find out would be to try. I imagine a global initiative taken up by individuals to foster and reward the very best in our natures and to discourage and disincentivize the worst which implies agreement about what the best and worst are. (I think of a sign I see on the wall of a preschool that I pass frequently: “Be safe. Be friendly. Be a worker.”) I imagine this initiative would necessitate a completely different commercial system — which might be a frightening prospect to some. And we’re off to the races.
The personal truth I’m grappling with right now is not nearly as weighty as these issues. It’s simply this: During the month of October I didn’t write a single word of my novel. Launching, and then recalibrating, my web site took up the entire month. Marketing is a rabbit hole and I could pour all my time, money and energy into it. But it’s a paradox. If I don’t concern myself with marketing, there will be no market for my novel when it’s published. And if I don’t make steady progress on writing my story and ultimately finish it, all the marketing is pointless. The fact is that even though the results of marketing activities for a novel often can’t be guaranteed or predicted, each task is straightforward, concrete and fairly easily navigated. Not so with writing. When it’s going well, working on my novel is the most fabulous creative fun. But it’s almost always scary because there’s a single question that hangs over every phase: Can I pull this off? Every chapter is uncharted territory. I have yet to finish the fourth chapter so I’m still getting to know my characters. I’m part outliner (plot planned in advance) and part discovery writer (going where my characters take me) so it always comes back to that question: Can I pull this off?
From now on I’m splitting my week thus: half on marketing and half on writing. No Matter What. There is always an endless pile of marketing tasks to be done. It’s easy to let them pull me away from writing because writing is scary. The more I allow this to happen though, the more I’m fooling myself and the more my novel will suffer. The truth has a price but of course, so do lies.