Monday, May 27, 2013

Truth, Fact, Fiction, Rightness

I have of late been thinking about that intersection of fact, fiction, true, imagined, right, real... and so on.  I can partially blame this on the fact that I taught Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried this spring, which has all those lovely metafictive sections about "how to tell a true war story."  For him, truth is feeling, getting the emotional impact accurately conveyed to the reader.

And I can partially blame my preoccupation with this topic on my taking a short break from fiction writing to compose two short nonfiction essays (one, "Multiplicity," published in The Rumpus a few weeks ago, the other as yet unpublished (waiting=sigh)).  Often, when I'm writing nonfiction, I'll be composing merrily away and then come to an abrupt stop, unwilling to write the next line, thinking to myself, but that's not what I want to have happen. Too bad it did.  Or, the flip: I'll be writing along and, after getting something down that I like, I'll think: that's not exactly how it happened.  

Since I started working on Revolutionary, I've had a great number of conversations about historical accuracy and the crossroads of history and fiction.  Strangely, it has never bothered me as much coming from the side of writing a novel (or short story).  It's fiction.  Sure, I want to be accurate (and I know readers care about that, see other blog entries) but I don't feel controlled by the facts the way that composing under the heading of nonfiction (even creative nonfiction) makes me feel.

But, as I say, I have been musing on this lately, and was delighted to find an entry by Sheryl St. Germain at Brevity Magazine's blog in which she discusses how she wrote a nonfiction piece in which her narrator interviewed Emily Dickinson (savor for a moment the oddness of that claim).  Describing the process she says: "become extremely sensitive to the fact that we sometimes must invent in order to reach (create?  interrogate?) a truth."  

I love it.  In particular, I love the notion of interrogating a truth. That's a lot of what writing -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- is for me. Wrestling.  Whether that's with an idea in my head, and trying to get it onto the page, or an idea from my life and trying to get it to fit a plot, or a topic that I've read about that I want to fictionalize.  Wrestling, interrogating... it isn't so much about "making up" or "creating" as working with what's already there: forming it, berating it, manipulating it, pestering it.

To me, St. Germain's quote speaks to the process while Tim O'Brien's idea speaks to the product.  But they are two ends of the same rope.  One is how the truth feels to the writer and the other how the truth feels to the reader; one is the questions the writer asks and the other is the answers the reader feels compelled to believe.

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