>The Poet’s Memoir: Truth vs. Accuracy


The March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived today, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

Frank Bures’ short piece in the “Trend” section caught my eye first: “I Google Myself, Therefore I Am.” Before I started this blog (August 2007) I must admit I didn’t get the whole internet community thing. I thought only teenagers and lonely single people were into it, and I smugly thought, “it’s for people who don’t have a real life.”

And then I met Joshilyn Jackson at a writers conference and she encouraged me to create a blog in order to have a “presence” online. And that when my first book (what an assumption!) is accepted by a publisher, I should create a web site. Okay. Those are good marketing tools. But Bures gets to the heart of the matter:

I Google myself to see what kinds of waves my life is making in the world. Isn’t that why writers, artists, and other insecure egomaniacs obsess over the Amazon rankings of their books, the comments on their blogs, the hits on their Web sites?

Oh, my gosh. Are all writers and artists that insecure? I’m finding myself embarrassed by how much I identify with his words. I even put a hit counter on my blog so I’ll know how many folks are reading it. And again I think, “but is this the real world?” Bures’ answer:

As society becomes more isolating and we have less contact with the lives of the people around us, the more we need the Internet to tell us what our communities used to: that our existence means something to someone else on this planet. What we used to see reflected back in the eyes of the people around us, we now look for on the computer screen…. That we are out there somewhere, and that somehow, it matters.

I know that for many, the artist and writer’s life is an isolated one. I struggle daily to spend several hours alone to work on my crafts, whether writing or painting icons. But I also crave interaction with my fellow humans. That’s one reason I value my critique groups and enjoy writing workshops. And of course, nothing replaces the human touch of my family and closest friends. But they’re not always there, and well, the Web is always only a touch away….

But it was Mark Doty’s article, “Bride in Beige,” that really got me excited. Mark is the author of seven poetry collections, but his article is about “A Poet’s Approach to Memoir.” This is timely for me as I’m going to Oxford tomorrow for the four day Creative Nonfiction Conference. I’ll be in manuscript critique workshops with Dinty Moore on Thursday (and he’s reading from his memoir, Between Panic and Desire, at the Thacker Mountain Radio Show Thursday night!) and Kristen Iversen on Friday. Then the general conference sessions are on Saturday and Sunday. There will even be an opportunity on Saturday to pitch my nonfiction book ideas to agents and editors. Deep breath. But now, back to Doty’s piece.

Most creative nonfiction instructors harp on the importance of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You just can’t make stuff up. Well, you can, and they call that fiction. The shady ground in between is what got James Frey in so much trouble .

And just this past weekend at our monthly critique group gathering, one of our members was struggling with her memoir-in-progress, because there are areas she can’t remember clearly or is tempted to make more exciting, to spice it up, with a little…. well, fiction. I was saying you can’t do that. But listen to the poet, Mark Doty:

Memoirs operate under the sign of truth. Is this true of poetry? Yes and no….poems are after truth, seeking a kind of emotional veracity; they wan to get at essential stuff and will use whatever means necessary to do so. Similarly the poet’s memoir is after truth, while nonfiction based in journalism or even traditional fictional practice tends to be after accuracy.

There you have it. The journalists are after accuracy. The poets are after truth. I think there’s much to be learned by approaching creative nonfiction, and specifically the memoir, through the poet’s eyes:

Poets understand, of course, that you look into experience to see what you can find there, that there is always more to see and that you may actually be better off without a compelling story. What you’re writing is not about “what happened,” it’s about the experience of happening.

The experience of happening. This is so exciting for those of us who sometimes read someone else’s memoir, like Anne Lamott’s or Haven Kimmel’s, and think, “Oh, but my life isn’t that interesting.” But if we look at our lives through the poet’s eyes, we can write about the “experience of happening.”

But what does Doty say about the ethical responsibilities of the nonfiction writer?

This is not to suggest that memoir is a liar’s holiday, free of ethical obligation…. I want to suggest that beyond the personal ethics of memoir—and beyond the matter of accuracy, there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real.

The ethics of art. A higher calling? Maybe, but….

And here’s where making things up comes in: There is only a degree to which the narration of history can do the work of achieving something as dimensional as reality is. … Narration has a tendency to flatten out the depths of things…. “Making things up” is very imprecise. I mean by that phrase a host of things: eliding some moments; juxtaposing others because they resonate together or comment upon one another; stretching time out in certain instances; trying to look more deeply into a moment… reaching into the inner life of a dream.

I’m wondering what my instructors at the workshop this weekend will have to say about truth vs. accuracy in memoir-writing. I’m out of here at 6:30 in the morning for my drive down to Oxford…. Stay tuned for a report in a few days!

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