Of Narrative and Fact

When I tell people I do science as my day job and creative writing as a hobby, the reaction is usually of dismay. And that’s understandable. Science is about facts, hard-earned data, equations, and numbers. Creative writing is about telling stories, emotionalizing them, and, most distinctively, making things up. A creative pursuit like fiction writing doesn’t seem compatible with the dry, confusing facts of science.

While I believe that science is as much a creative pursuit as any form of art, I have to admit that in this case the observation is right, sort of, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

I believe that the fundamental mode of human communication is always telling of stories. I believe that when scientific textbooks fail, it is because they are so focused on the facts that they lose the readers in the complexity of those facts. The exercise in creative writing is an exercise in telling stories and a space to learn how stories affect readers. By knowing how to tell stories, we can communicate facts better, right?

I went to Royal Ontario Museum a while back and it got me thinking a bit about narratives and facts. It seems to me that every museum old enough to have extensive collection of historical artifacts display them similarly: group them according to the culture they belong and label every single piece with a tag. Those artifacts are bullet points, pieces of history, facts. They are scattered and disconnected and never enough to give anybody a good idea about the culture they came from or the people behind them.

Where is the man behind the mask?
Where is the man behind the mask?

On the other hand, recent exhibitions display artifacts sparingly but with great details about the people, the culture, the lives they lived. Those exhibitions made a lot more sense and encourage people to reflect on the diversity of ideas and their manifestations. These exhibitions are narratives. They don’t have all the (arti)facts, but they have enough to make you understand.

Or do they?

The problem with telling a story is that you can only ever tell it from one point of view. If you’re lucky, you might be able to fit in a few more perspectives, but that is about it. A story needs a POV regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, whether it’s based on true story or is completely made up. Having a POV restricts the facts that are used to support it. Stories can really be compelling and true, but it can’t be the truth. The truth is always too large for a POV to contain. The only thing that ever contains the truth are the large extensive collection of facts.

The problem with facts are that they are so dry and often seemingly irrelevant. Facts require so much time to absorb, digest, and connect. Facts don’t appeal to the mind because they lack emotion and context. Hence, facts become the playground of the specialized and not so much of the general population.

And that is okay. There are millions of bullet points about our world, our population, and our knowledge that are probably of no use to me, and I am okay not knowing them. What we need is an honest way to get to understand the things that matters, probably in narrative form, so we have an idea of what is going on around us.

The key word is honest. Considering that every person wielding pens and papers, tablets, and everything that can put thoughts to words have their own beliefs and agendas, there is a good chance that the narratives are in some way dishonest. I am not saying journalists are not honest people, they are, but their POV’s and needs will distort the stories no matter how much they try to keep the facts straight.

That is why we have disproportionately sensationalized stories in the news, documentaries, political statements, and history books (not all of them, of course, thank goodness). That is why sometimes the things that needed attention most are not recognized. We are hardwired for good stories not important ones, and it is often hard to distinguish between the two. And that is probably why I like fiction so much. Because no matter how good the stories are, they are honest in their dishonesty. They don’t pretend to matter where they do not. That creates a refreshing level of truthfulness that I feel non-fiction writings sometimes lack.

While I think non-fictions are pretty much doomed to incompleteness, I don’t think it is necessary a bad thing especially in this time and age. Stories have limitations, sure, but facts are out there and we can find them. We just need to remember that they are the ones that are true, narratives not so much. And if the facts can’t form a single coherent narrative, it is just how it is.

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