I enjoy research. For a writer, this is obviously a good thing. I love following an obscure reference to its source or delving into the past in search of what, for want of a better word, could be called ‘the truth’, even though, historically at least, there is no such thing.
It can seem a bit obsessive. Halfway through a film or documentary, I will stop to look up a historical reference. Films are the worst. Documentaries portray at least one person’s vision of the truth… evidence-based or speculative, they are interpretations and opinions of an accepted fact. Films, though, take huge liberties with the facts and that worries me. As long as the viewer remembers that these are stories, made to entertain as much, if not more, than they are made to inform, then the inaccuracies do not matter. When, however, the ‘Hollywoodised’ version of the facts becomes the only one to which people pay attention, then our vision of history becomes seriously skewed.
Take Braveheart, for example. Mel Gibson’s 1995 film brought the story of William Wallace to the attention of the world. It was hugely successful and remains a firm favourite with many people. We watch the film, engage with its characters and story and are left with a feeling that we have gained some knowledge and insight into the period and its people.
Not so, say the lists of ‘most historically inaccurate films’. Nowhere near so, say those who have studied Wallace, his life, and the history of Scotland. Mel Gibson himself admitted that to be true, but defended his directorial choices because they made for more compelling cinema, regardless of their lack of accuracy. Ironically, the film rasied the profile of Wallace and Scottish history in general as well as increasing tourism, so perhaps its very inaccuracy served a purpose.
We all know that the movie industry takes as many liberties with history as it does with scripts based upon classic works of fiction. It does not devalue the cinematic art form, but it really ought to make us question what we absorb and unconsciously accept as historical fact, or an accurate rendition of literature.
Yet how often are we interested enough to go off and study the sources with any depth just because we have enjoyed a film? I get curious. Where did they get that idea from, is it based on fact or a piece of pure cinema? How come one portrayal of a historical character can be so very different from another?
I will probably start with Wiki, just as a jumping off point, then wander off in goodness knows how many directions. I always look for several different sources so that I have something on which to form an opinion. And I often get sidetracked, chasing down associated people or ideas, knowing all the while that there is no way I will ever know the truth… at best, all I can hope for is an accepted version of the truth, a consensus based on the interpretation of collated evidence.
Obviously, history itself is true… what happened, happened… but the records that have been left to us are not objective. They are all, of necessity, subjective interpretations of that truth and are therefore inevitably subject to error, manipulation, or simply fall victim to the writer’s perspective and emotions.
Personal perspective colours everything we see, do, and record in memory. It takes very little to grasp how even the simplest of things can be so coloured.
“I stayed in my pyjamas and wrote until lunchtime…” That could be seen as a statement of fact. Except, I don’t own pyjamas, but it sounded better than ‘dressing gown’. And I was dressed way before I had lunch…which, admittedly, was nearer tea-time… And I didn’t just write… I read, made and drank coffee, fed and played with the dog, fed the fish…and all the other little things that creep in when we are ‘supposed’ to be writing. But how would it look to others?
“She didn’t even get dressed till lunchtime!”
“I wish I could sit around doing nothing…”
“She can’t have much of a life/must be really depressed if she doesn’t even bother getting dressed…”
“Wow, I wish I was a writer…”
“It’s alright for some. Bet she doesn’t have to work…”
“She must be lazy/ill/weird…” (Okay, they can have that last one…)
Emotional response always and immediately overlays what we experience, crafting its own version of the truth of a situation. Even our own. I think I stayed in the dressing gown till lunchtime because, for once, I could. I normally work a seven-day week and start early. I have done so for years, barring the occasional weekend and holidays… and there were a good many years when I didn’t even get those. Today, I didn’t have to go out early. I had a choice. The housework was done and the dressing gown is warm and cosy on a cold morning.
But is that the truth, or just an excuse? Not even I can be sure of that… we are all adept at finding justification for our own actions, if we ever bother to question them. Most of the time we go through our days without stopping to question such basic actions or the true reasons behind our decisions.
Many spiritual schools and religious bodies advocate a daily ‘examination of conscience’ where the events of the day, your own actions and reactions, are played out in imagination before sleep. This can be a really useful exercise, yet time alone will only allow us to replay a fraction of the day…those moments that stand out from the rest and have roused an emotional response for some reason.
Much of what we do throughout the course of a day is habitual. We are programmed to adopt patterns of behaviour. It frees us processing space in the brain and conserves energy… and probably makes us more efficient as we are not constantly starting from scratch with every action.
That is all well and good when you are getting in a car to drive to work or loading the washing machine…that kind of patterned efficiency is a good thing and could be called expertise. If we accept the habitual patterns that become imprinted upon the way we think and feel with as little examination, we perpetuate them too. We are all aware that habits are easily formed and will shape our way of seeing the world. This can be a good thing… though more seems to be written about its negative effects than its possibilities. Consciously seeking the good in life, rather than the bad, being open to compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit… they would not be bad habits to acquire.