Verisimilitude. Let’s say it again, savoring each syllable this time: ver·i·si·mil·i·tude.
I believe that I first read that word in a book by Piers Anthony, The Color of Her Panties. One of the nice things about the Xanth series of books is that they were excellent for building vocabulary. Large and unfamiliar words would often be used and defined in the same paragraph, or at least the same page either directly or through excellent context clues. No matter how un-literary those books may be, I have to thank them for helping to build my vocabulary.
The publication date for that particular book was 1992, and I remember buying it before there were too many more in the series past it, so I doubt I was older than 12 when I read it the first time, and may have been as young as 10. It could be twenty years, then, that I’ve had this idea of verisimilitude dancing around in my head, probably encompassing the entire time in which I’ve desired to write.
In another book, The Four Agreements, the idea of breaking old agreements that you have with yourself is presented (in favor of making new ones, the four, of course). We all have agreements with ourselves, our self-definitions, and sometimes, those agreements can be hurtful or detrimental to us. I used to agree that I wasn’t athletic, for example, and it prevented me from even trying. While I’ve made strides to apply this sort of agreement breaking to some aspects of my life, I had not really thought about what they might mean in terms of writing until I woke up early this morning with a burning need to use the bathroom.
I had been dreaming. In the dream, I was talking with my brother over the phone, and he was referring to some photos he sent to my phone earlier, which I blithely thought I could pull up on my computer. Then I remembered I had to transfer them, so I told him I would call him right back once I was done, wouldn’t take more than a couple minutes. But my phone, the one I really have, is not a smart phone. It’s not a flip phone or anything, but it isn’t latest/greatest or even last year’s model, and in order to get pictures to my computer from it, I would have to individually email each one as a picture text message, which, with my phone, takes a lot longer than a couple minutes. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to call him back when I said I would, and I woke up.
The dream hit a dead end, because my brain wouldn’t get around the fact that my actual phone can’t send photos to my computer at a reasonable speed. I found that concept, early this morning, sitting on the toilet, ridiculous. I couldn’t even dream myself a better phone, a better computer, a neater way to transfer photos? What kind of purveyor of fiction could I be if even my dreams get stopped by such trivial practicalities? Sure, the reality for me, with my current phone, is that it would take a long time to do what I wanted, but in dreams, as in writing, I don’t have to follow those rules.
So why do I?
Perhaps because of a misguided agreement with verisimilitude.
Sure, I’ll write about magic, space travel, aliens, mind powers and superheroes, but only in realistic ways. They’ve got to pass the verisimilitude test, right? So I let my critical mind box me in. I build walls that define reality and don’t let myself run into them. I stay in the middle and it isn’t working.
I wrote a story for a workshop class that included a scene I took from real life. In that scene, a woman had climbed on to a rock, and then, not knowing how to dismount, slid off. Her lanyard caught on a lip of the rock and caught and held her by the back of the neck. This happened to me. Exactly the way I wrote it, it happened. I still got comments that it was not believable, because one person’s experience with lanyards was that they wouldn’t take the weight of a full grown woman.
But it did. It really happened. I had a nasty rope burn on the back of my neck for weeks, because the lanyard wouldn’t break.
I took verisimilitude to mean that I had to write things that felt true to me; things that were woven through with real life enough to convince people they were real, even though they were about aliens. But dealing with only things that I feel are true-to-life is limiting, just like trying to get photos from my phone to my computer. And, as I learned, some people don’t believe it anyway, so there’s no point in cleaving so strictly to my personal experience.
After all, I first learned the word verisimilitude from a pre-teen flying centaur, who was explaining it to a goblette who would be Chief and their Elf Quest cross-over companion while they were in the process of trying to steal the Simurgh’s egg from a roc.
What was I thinking?