Friday, February 11, 2011

Truth versus Facts

One of my favorite blogs is bark, the blog maintained by the MFAers over at Eastern Washington University's Inland Northwest Center for Writers. There is a cacophony of voices. Posts are created by individuals and they meld together into an aesthetic at once inviting and critical. Some of this may have to do with my fondness for the program. I studied under some of the graduate faculty while an undergraduate at EWU and loved my time there. I have a few close friends from EWU's program and it helped shaped my life in ways I couldn't have predicted when entering the program.

I was perusing bark the other day and came across this post by Monet Thomas, which discusses the ethics of poetry in the confessional vein. This is always a tricky subject and makes me think of the scandals of nonfiction: what?! that didn't really happen? Well, yes and no, is usually the answer. The facts of the situation were different, but the emotion of the situation was exactly as I wrote it (the machinations of James Frey aside). And the fact of the matter is, I have zero problem with this kind of fabrication. Sometimes details might be alterred to create mood, not because lying makes the story stronger, but because the ultimate goal of art is communication. The lies help to better communication the truth, even as the facts take a backseat.

Whenever the ethics of writing are brought up, I get a little uncomfortable. A lot of times the discussion turns to "authority"—whether an author has the right to talk about something. Which is patently ridiculous in some respects. It might be because I've done a ton of workshops, but I'm a bit of a formalist at heart, meaning I think the words on the page have to be the final arbiter of writing. Whether a man can know what it's like to have an abortion is an odd question. The question is, or should be, did the man write the story of the abortion in a way that's believable and engaging? Was there an interesting story behind the fact of the abortion? In short, whether a man or a woman wrote the story should have no effect on one's reading of the story.

When we do our contests here at the Bellingham Review (which we're doing now; please submit), we assign every entry a number and read them without the context of gender or a cover letter. Ideally, I think this is the way that all contests would be run, and all submissions periods, but that's a little far-reaching for most. Obviously there can be problems with liberties taken when one's talking about nonfiction, but this concern filters into fiction and poetry, too. Monet Thomas's post references Sylvia Plath's "Daddy." A lot is made of the autobiographical content of this poem, but there's plenty in there that's invention. And I think that's the lesson, a little bit. Yes, things have to be true, but not all the time. Otherwise you'll never get to something that means more than the mundanity of your life.

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