Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Truth In Fiction: An Alzheimer’s Awareness Month Reflection By Sheila Seiler Lagrand, Ph.D.

A writing mentor once told me, “Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.” She was right. Recently someone asked me if writing fiction was easier than nonfiction, Since you just make it all up.”

“No,” I told him. “I make it up, but it has to be true or nobody would stick with the story.” He shook his head. “How do you make up true stuff? That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does,” I insisted. “If you make a character too perfect, no one can buy in. If you create a character who is purely evil, it’s hard for a reader to accept. Life is messy and complicated, so tidy solutions to big problems don’t fly.”
I will admit that I was pleased that someone asked me about the craft of writing because I so often feel like pinching myself when I realize I have the privilege of sharing my words with others. But as I thought further about our conversation, I realized that there’s another layer to this business of truth in fiction: In the course of writing my novel about Alzheimer’s Disease, Remembering for Ruth, I discovered a truth that I didn’t know I knew. It came to me as I wrote this exchange between the two brothers, Paul and Matthew, who are recognizing their mother’s mental decline and trying to bridge years of estrangement:

“I do know,” Paul retorted. “Of course I want her to be happy. I also want her, and us, to be safe. What if she set the house on fire? What if she wandered off in the middle of the night and was hit by a car? What if . . . what if she forgets who we are?” He studied a collection of canning jars adorning a shelf.

“One thing I know for sure,” Matt said, “is that we need to keep her best interests at heart. This will be hard. We can count on that. She will forget our names—we already are starting to see that—and maybe even that we’re her sons. But so long as we haven’t forgotten that we’re her sons, she deserves the best life we can give her.” (From Chapter 2, Matthew Meets Mitchell).

Even as I wrote it two years ago, that last sentence hit me right between the eyes.
A loved one in our family suffers from this miserable disease, and it hurts to see her struggle to place us. It’s painful to watch for—and never see—the light of recognition in her eyes. But as long as we remember who she is, we can focus on treating her with love and protecting her dignity.

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