TED Talks Every Writer Should Watch: Mac Barnett “Why a Good Book is a Secret Door”

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TED talks are “ideas worth spreading” in the areas of Technology, Entertainment and Design. In this five-part series, Nicole Bell shares TED talks every writer should watch. Part one featured Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Genius, part two featured Andrew Stanton’s talk, Clues to a Great Story and part three featured Brené Brown on The Power of Vulnerability.

This week I’ve chosen a TED Talk that I hope makes you at least a little nostalgic for your favorite childhood bedtime stories. Mac Barnett is a children’s author who offers a humorous and whimsical discussion on the Art of fiction.


I want to focus on what he calls,“that place in the middle, that place which you could call art or fiction.” There is a rather intelligent sounding word to describe this phenomenon: verisimilitude, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the quality of seeming real”.  Seeming real. On the one hand, we know fiction stories are not real because we’ve been taught since we were young that fiction stories aren’t true. They didn’t happen historically, they include fantastical elements outside the realm of known physics, and they have whatever other reasons you give to define fiction from non-fiction. But, like Barnett says, at the same time they also are real in their own strange way.  He explains, “We know these characters aren’t real, but we have real feelings about them, and we’re able to do that. We know these characters aren’t real, and yet we also know that they are.”

I think an important observation Barnett makes is that we feel real emotions for non-real characters. We experience the anxiety and excitement of Frodo and Sam just before they leave the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, we cry when Aslan dies in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (well, I do, at least), And these are not fake or insincere feelings. Some people like to call fiction an “escape” from reality, but I would disagree. It’s perhaps an exaggeration of reality, but definitely not an escape. A good book according to Barnett is, “A secret door that opens and lets the stories out into reality.” Stories into reality—not the other way around. We let the stories enter and consume our lives; our lives do not interrupt the stories we read. My grandmother once told me about overhearing a conversation between two of her friends about another person. She didn’t realize until the conversation was almost over that the women were talking about a character on a TV show and not a “real” friend of theirs. So, in one sense, fiction is a world of “honest lies.”

Barnett had the incredible experience of working at 826 Valencia where this phenomenon of fiction is more tangibly in the physical world. Notice I used the word “physical” rather than “real.” JK Rowling has a brilliant quote from Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” I think this might help us understand this “middle” ground of fiction where truth and lies are allowed to co-exist.

Whether you write children’s fiction or something geared for older audiences, it is equally important to remember how real your characters truly are. They don’t exist as mere letters on pages in a book; they become personalities in the minds of your readers right alongside the personalities of their friends and family. We should all want our fiction be a safe place where reality meets exaggerated reality. Work to have a strong, tangible verisimilitude in your writing. Let your stories become secret doors for readers of all ages to truly enjoy and experience.