Writing Stuff

Mixing Facts with Fiction

I think we should legalize marijuana.

Did I get your attention? Yeah, I got my public speaking teacher’s attention in college, too. (Sorry to keep talking about my college years, but they were monumental growth years for me).

Our assignment? – to write a persuasive paper on a controversial issue. After sitting through scads of boring, put-me-to-sleep arguments (which really weren’t arguments because the issues were no-brainers, why we shouldn’t allow smoking in the dorms, etc.) I decided to shake things up a bit. Yeah, I know, big surprise. *snicker*

So, taking my audience into consideration, I began to run through a gamut of topics – college students, young, cool … what about drugs? But what drug specifically? I needed to pick something that I could effectively argue for or against, depending on my stance.

So, I picked marijuana. After researching the topic exhaustively, I decided to argue for legalization. I practiced not only saying the words so they flowed easily, but my facial expressions, my hand gestures. I looked at the issue from all angles effectively recognizing, and then rebutting possible arguments. I addressed all of these issues in my paper – I was ready.

The professor asked to see all papers and to approve the subject matter before we got up in front of class to give our presentation. Somehow, mine slipped through the cracks and she didn’t actually see, or read, my paper until it was time for me to give my speech. She pulled me out into the hall, pale and shaking. There was no way she could allow me to give my speech. It was too persuasive and given the type of audience, I could very well convince my fellow classmates to hurry out and fire up some giggle weed.

At first, I was angry. I worked hard on this paper, spent a lot of time checking and double-checking my facts. I was prepared and ready to go. But after stepping back from my injured pride for a moment, I realized, she had a point. I couldn’t, in good consciousness, stand in front of thirty some-odd students and convince them that the act of smoking itself was more harmful than the actual drug.

So what happened next? Was I given another chance to speak on something else? No. Did I get an F for the assignment? No.

I gave my speech, but with a minor adjustment. I had to tack on “for medicinal purposes” at the end of each “marijuana should be legalized” bit.

I wasn’t happy about this, but I certainly understood why we had to do this.

I’ve since learned that writers have a huge responsibility to their readers. That what we write about might very well persuade an opinion, or goad a person into action. It was a humbling, and somewhat awe-inspiring lesson.

The art of persuasion can be applied to fiction, too.

I recently finished a book called “Desert Wives” by Betty Webb. It’s about polygamy, well, murder in a polygamy camp, to be precise.

Ms. Webb handles this sensitive issue with aplomb. She keeps the story centered on the murder but liberally sprinkles the story with various facts about polygamy. I was truly horrified by this lifestyle and very nearly turned off from finishing the book, but only because of the polygamy issue, not because of the story itself. I never once felt Ms. Webb was trying to hit me over the head with facts or was trying to persuade me that polygamy was ok or otherwise and that got me to thinking. Why don’t we see more fiction handle sensitive issues? Why aren’t we taking full advantage of our voice to educate people in subtle ways? Oh sure, fiction is meant to entertain us, but writers can slip in facts and information, tricking the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Ms. Webb includes several factual pages at the end of the book about polygamy: the history, the crimes associated with the practice, the birth defects because of inbreeding, how they slip through law loopholes, how taxpayers end up paying for the children because the men divorce them only to marry another but keep the women as common-law wives, so to speak. It goes on and on. Inserting this information at the end of the book was just the medicine I needed to swallow this disturbing issue. The story teased my curiosity just enough to make me want to learn more about the practice, and Ms. Webb headed me off at the pass, providing me with the information I needed.

I closed the book feeling impressed. Impressed that Ms. Webb was able to balance facts with fiction, to entertain me and yet inform me, no small feat. I wouldn’t recommend this writing style as a general rule; it takes a certain finesse to carry this off without coming off too preachy, but the technique is certainly thought provoking.

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This was originally published on Write Anything, April 14, 2006.