Emotional Truth in Fiction
Faculty Mentor: Stephen Tuttle, English Department
In the early 1990s I had the opportunity to work closely with a group of youth patients, staff members, and clinicians at the Utah State Hospital. During that time there were several accusations of misconduct of staff with the youth patients, some of whom I knew personally. My project has been to create six short stories dealing with the experiences of both the youth patients and the staff at the State Hospital that are based on the interviews I did with former patients, clinicians, and staff. I wanted to investigate the way specific individuals remembered incidents of misconduct and how those memories correspond to my memories. Using these comparisons as a springboard into a fictional world, I wrote stories that I felt would most effectively relay the emotional truth of the individuals involved in the incidents.
First it was necessary to research how factual truth works in fiction and how fiction often portrays true events but with a greater similitude of emotional truth and understanding than mere journalistic or sometimes even non-fiction can. I researched and wrote about Tim O’Brien who writes fiction which he believes functions as a means of understanding emotional truth, particularly fiction about trauma and suffering.
My next task was to meet with people whose experiences in the State Hospital could inform my own understanding of what took place there in the 1990s. I informally interviewed six different people; one staff member, one clinician, and three patients. I had hoped to interview more, but I was unable to get in touch with more people. I found that the view of the staff member and the clinician about the experiences of the patients in the hospital was wholly different from what the patients remembered. Interestingly, I found the viewpoint of the staff member and the clinician to be almost identical. They were less sympathetic of the patients and more inclined to see the negative experiences of the patients as a result of the patients’ own emotional or mental disorders.
Using this research, I composed six short stories, each about a different patient and their experiences in the hospital. Three of the stories I wrote while in a workshop class with Dr. Tuttle where I was able to workshop them with him and my classmates. Another story I wrote while attending a creative writing conference at UMASS Amherst, and I was able to workshop it with Noy Holland, a famous fiction writer. All six stories were revised under the direction of Dr. Tuttle.
Besides visiting the State Hospital Youth Center and the State Hospital Museum, I also visited places where the patients in my stories grew up or places where they had recreational activities while they were in the hospital. For instance, I took a trip to Tabiona, Utah where I was able to gather material for two of the stories that take place there. I also visited Magna, Utah where one of the characters grew up. These small trips were important in the development of concrete details to ground the emotional experiences that my stories discuss. Such concrete details help to create a sense of emotional truth because they are the realistic scaffold upon which the fictional stories are told.
I entered two of my stories in fiction contests sponsored by the English Department. I won first place in both the Writer’s Portfolio Contest and the Doty Fiction Contest. I presented one of my stories at the English Symposium and I have applied to present my research and a story at the BYU ORCA Symposium in October.
The ORCA grant enabled me to travel to UMASS Amherst where the instruction in writing enhanced the instruction I have received from Dr. Tuttle, and where I had a week to write and study. Not only has this project significantly improved my writing, I now have six strong stories that are ready to be sent for publication. I plan to send them to several publications and / or journals including The Western Humanities Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, and The Bellingham Review. This project has better prepared me for the MFA in Creative Writing that I have just started at BYU, and I am deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to work on it with the support of the ORCA grant.