If What You Write is True
This weekend I sat on a panel on Writing Truth as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Capital City Press Festival, and as happens, one’s thoughts continue afterwards. So I wished I to try and get a few things down, and with thanks to the brilliant writers on the panel who sparked my thinking: Matthew Stepanic, Anna Marie Sewell, and Michael Hingston.
To begin with I would say that who you are is what you will write. If you try to sidestep that the writing will feel false. I’m thinking about what Kristjana Gunnars says in Stranger at the Door:
“It has always seemed to me that good accomplishments are unlikely unless the life they come out of is good.”
Gunnars quotes Laura Riding who says:
“If what you write is true, it will not be so because of what you are as a writer but because of who you are as a being.”
As writers it’s our responsibility to tell the truth. As humans we need to tell our own truth in our own time. You might think that your own truth is too small, but we need all the truths. All of our truths are connected. And there is room for all of them.
I keep coming back to this, by Anne Lamott, from her well-known book, Bird by Bird:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
– Anne Lamott
I’m interested in how we find the form that fits our truth And as was pointed out on the panel, as writers, we need to feel safe, to speak from a space where we don’t feel ourselves to be in danger. For some truths, poetry may be the proper vessel, and for others, fiction might be better suited. We need to speak our truths, but we own them, and we get to decide how much and when to give.
I think we all have a desire to be seen, to be known, to be understood. Readers need to see their stories and the details of their lives reflected in literature, and writers need to tell their stories. There is a meeting place between reader and writer that is incredibly powerful, comforting, consoling, validating, and inspiring.
As a person writing from a privileged space, I know it’s also important to make space for those who are not. To hear from a variety of voices is enriching for us all. It is imperative. This cannot be emphasized enough.
On Saturday, at our panel, there was no avoiding a mention of recent events. In fact, I had been thinking about the talk, and pulling the above quotations from books on my shelves while tuning in to the proceedings. It was difficult to look away. It was difficult to watch. The words that resounded for me by Christine Blasey Ford are these: “My responsibility is to the truth.” Also, her comment on the details that had been seared into her: “The details that bring me here today are the ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and haunted me.”
In A Chorus of Stones, by Susan Griffin, a book on WW2, on personal and public trauma – she talks about how every life bears in some way on every other life. She talks about the minute consequences, and the way they ripple forever outward.
“Were you to trace any life, and study even the minute consequences, the effect, for instance, of a three-minute walk over a patch of grass, of words said casually to a stranger who happens to sit nearby in a public place, the range of that life would extend beyond the territory we imagine it to inhabit.”
And in another book by Griffin, The Eros of Everyday, she says:
“To speak falsely, even with a false cadence, is to betray oneself. One aims for the language that resonates at exactly the same pitch that one feels. Perhaps whatever is said in this pitch is right.”
Truth is in the cadences in which we speak and write, and truth is in the details. I keep coming back to this quotation from W.S. Di Piero in his book on art and poetry, Shooting the Works:
“The mystery of details. The satisfaction of painted particulars. We enter a familiar museum or gallery and go at once (or pretend to drift) to a favourite picture, because in the picture is a detail we love, as we love lines or phrases in poems we can hardly remember the entire drift of.”
“An artist’s concentration is such that certain details will suddenly bear, unexpectedly, a full sense of existence. A hat, an ear, a phrase.”
Let’s go back to Susan Griffin, and another passage from Eros of the Everyday. I know I’ve quoted it before and probably will again. In it she talks about a friend who has lost her apartment, her partner, and she has been weeping. As one does in times of loss. They also joke: about getting back “to the serious things” like “who does the shopping.”
“And then we laugh again because everyone knows that who does the shopping is just a detail, and all that loss is the serious thing. But is this really so? For loss is experienced through detail, when, for instance, one shops alone if before one shopped for the night’s food with a lover.”
For loss is experienced through detail. The fullness of life can be captured in a detail, well-rendered. Details can haunt. Once shared, the details of our truth move out beyond us, and resonate into future lives in ways we can only imagine. It is worth our persistence and it worth our bravery.
Years ago when I was writing my book about the possibility of a woman art forger, I remember reading about how a really good fake painting, for example, is difficult to discern immediately. But if you hang it on the wall and just live with it, the viewer starts to feel that there is something not quite right with it. Their intuition tells them that it’s off-kilter. And then one day, walking by, they see wherein the falseness lies, the incorrect details. There’s a moment when the viewer realizes it’s not an original. Suddenly, the falseness is very obvious. At other times, when coming upon a fake, the incorrect details in an art forgery are immediately visible to a discerning eye.
And now, for something different, though not entirely so, as I want to draw your attention to the sidebar (or below if you’re reading on a mobile device) and to my newest sponsor, who tells the truth regularly on her blog, Pickle Me This. It’s the blog that I’ve read for the longest amount of time without fail and Kerry Clare is firmly in the category – decent human being. Please do check it out and support her in supporting me. With thanks.