Here’s a clip you might enjoy. It harks back to that thorny old issue, the truth in non-fiction. It’s worth considering, if you haven’t seen it before.
Last night I could not sleep for worrying what I might say to Jim from The Truth About Lies, given his lengthy and generous comment on my recent post, ‘Dog Babies’.
Jim has not said that I have cheated, rather I have created false expectations in this post. False expectations, because for the last several weeks I have written about my broken leg and then one day I decide to write a piece that is ‘semi-fictional’, and people cannot detect as much. They take it for gospel truth and when I go to pains to tell them they have it wrong, that they must not take it too seriously, then I am challenged.
What is it with the written word?
I do not want the facts alone to be judged. It is the writing I care about. I hope people judge my writing as a story, more than that they judge me, or the characters in my story. Nor do I want people to commiserate with me. I had rather they commiserate with my character who often times is me, but also represents an aspect of me, even with a broken leg.
But when readers read my narrator as pure me, how then can I respond, other than to say thankyou for their kind thoughts, when they fret for me?
I would prefer that readers view my writing as thoughts about ideas and events and writing, as well as about characters, and not so much about me as a person, more about me as a narrator. This seems reasonable given that we all know that the Internet represents us in certain ways, and that we are not always who we seem. We have multiple aspects to our identities.
I fear for the judgements about ‘my friend’, in this piece. My friend’s words are accurate in so far as my memory allows, but the issue is not one of my friend, it is my narrator self who should be judged and is that not something to ponder on?
My arguments seem thin. They have merit I hope, but even so, should I warn people before they read? – This you are about to take in is ‘autobiographical fiction’.
Why must we always warn people about the nature of what it is they are about to read? Are there not clues enough in the writing? If someone reads a piece of fiction and believes it to be true then so be it. Likewise, if someone reads a piece of nonfiction and believes it to be untrue, so what?
I am not talking newspaper reports here. And even then, if someone employs reportage-type techniques in their writing and weaves in a thread of fiction, can that not stand as well?
Cannot the writing be judged for itself? A piece of writing that must have some truth as in authenticity to be believed and to be considered plausible, but need not be ‘true’ as a statement of fact. And if it is not true as a statement of fact, is it necessary for people to feel affronted.
Or is it, as one of my supervisors has suggested recently: some readers might feel they have squandered their empathy on a narrator who no longer deserves it because she is faithless? She has not told the truth.
I describe myself as an autobiographer largely because I want people to recognise that in telling my story, I use details from my life, but at the same time I am a writer who actively constructs the story.
We all do this to some extent when we tell our stories. The story may in essence be ‘truthful’, but simultaneously the events and people described in it are selective.
The artistry lies in the details that we elect to include and those we omit. If we look from one perspective, we see one aspect of the event. From another it looks completely different.
When I write from my child self, my adult perspective jars, and vice versa, but both perspectives exist and many more besides. Similarly, if I write when I am feeling despondent, my writing takes on a different quality than were I to write at the height of great joy.
Most likely, if I were ebullient, I would not have the urge to write. My negative emotions most often cause me to want to write as a means of overcoming them.
And given that there are many times when I feel despondent, or angry, or jealous, or frustrated or sad, the writing comes more easily much of the time, but at the same time it reflects particular mind states that do not show the whole or the ‘truth’ of me, the person – as if any such ‘truth’ or whole person exists. They show far more about the truth of my narrative self.
So when people address their comments to me the person, as in the instance of ‘Dog Babies’, I feel I must relieve them in some way.
I do not want them to think of me, Elisabeth, in her unhappy state of life with an unhappy dog. I want them to float around in their minds, to resonate with or against the narrator, Elisabeth, and her unhappy dog.
We need to suspend judgement when we read, and with fiction it comes more easily it would seem than with non-fiction. I am sensitive to the notion of forewarning my readers that this then is a piece of ‘partial fiction’, which in itself is a construction.
I could say that everything I write is a construction. The amount of fictionalising might differ but I do not offer reportage, except perhaps in my comments and even then in my comments I do not speak the ‘absolute truth’.
I’ve written many an essay on the topics of truth in nonfiction and I am weary with it. I do not want the truth seekers to get me wrong, but let’s face it, we all of us construct scenarios in our writing, in our art, in our photography, in our poetry that reflect aspects of our lives, our personalities, our many selves, but these are aspects only.
We do not present the ‘truth’. There is no such thing, only a sense that masquerades as ‘truth’ and can make us feel on safer ground, but the ‘truth’ is we do not know this for fact. Maybe truthfulness is a better notion, but even then we enter shaky ground.
In the end, I opt for emotional truth. That to me is the essence.
Enough, enough, I say. I have written out my angst.