Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Truth

Rhian was working on something interesting recently--a personal essay. This is an unusual activity at W6HQ--we've always been pretty hardcore fiction writers. Back in grad school, we would roll our eyes when another personal essay came down the pike; we used to joke that the Montana license plate should read THE MEMOIR STATE, and the last line of our friend Gerri's bio, when she published her poems in magazines, was "She is not writing a memoir."

At least a little of this anti-essay sentiment was jealousy, I think--I can't speak for Rhian (especially now that she's a traitor!), but in my case, I just don't think I've had the life experience to make it interesting. Oh, my life has been plenty interesting to me. But, as I might have suggested in the comments of the last thread, it's been a life of sitting around making stuff up in my head.

I have tried my hand at a few. I wrote a couple for a Prominent Magazine, but each time the work disintegrated into a series of arguments with the editor, who wanted the essays to end differently. The editor would say something like, "Maybe when it was all over, you thought something like this." I: "But I didn't." Editor: "But maybe you did." In the end, I gave up--if it wasn't going to be true, I didn't want to write it. Period. Those pieces remain unpublished.

Maybe, however, I was wrong. Earlier this year I posted about an argument I had--a flame war, really--on a photography forum about a particular picture I dislike. My argument boiled down to the pedantic idea that a photograph is always a manipulation--that photography is not, in fact, a documentary form. The matrix of artistic choices involved in taking, developing, and printing a picture is so thick that little truth can ever be glimpsed through it. Now, if the photo were overtly fictional (as in the work of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Sandy Skoglund, etc.), we could relax and take what truth from it we liked. But the deceptive prospect of objective truth prevents us from actually seeing any truth.

I guess I felt the same way about essays and novels--an essay is never going to be true, so why not just write fiction? But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I oughta loosen up and embrace the winking nontruth of the personal essay. Perhaps readers are grown up enough to have absorbed the impossibility of objective truth in an essay, and in fact consider it a part of what makes reading one pleasurable.

Something tells me I've posted about this before, but it keeps gnawing at me. Whaddya say, should I give in and write some essays?

12 comments:

rmellis said...

"Embrace the winking non-truth"? No way! No, really: no way. I know it's an unpopular stance these days, but I think the line between fiction and non should be fast and clear. Okay, fiction can have true bits, but non-fiction cannot distort reality. YOUR reality, anyway.

Truth-fudging went out with the Bush administration.

Write yr essays, but don't put on those cutesy endings. They suck, they really do.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, you're right about the cute endings. I wasn't really going to use them.

bloglily.com said...

JR -- I like your blog essays (a while back there was one on your love of polaroids I particularly liked), so I think you already do that kind of thing.

Anyway, I don't think the most important thing about an essay is whether it's "true" or not. It's whether it's interesting. For me, that means the writer has an opinion about something I don't know a lot about, and then tells me why I should care, or at least keep reading the essay. Do you remember that Nicholson Baker essay in the New Yorker about card catalogs? Now THERE's an essay -- about a weird subject, and then about something sort of universal, and all wrapped up in really good writing. Write one of those!!

I'm not so interested in memoir. I don't know if this is what Riann means, but I think the stuff that happens to people is almost always more compelling when it appears in a novel or a story.

And, finally, I want an example of a cutesy ending!

rmellis said...

"Then I tousled Jacob's hair and we went out and got hamburgers together -- with extra cheese! Like father, like son."

Matt said...

I feel the same way about documentaries as you do about "personal essays". Unless the filmmaker decides to let the camera roll and do it all in one take, without sound design or music added (a more hardcore Dogme 95 in some sense) then it's being manipulated.

But some of those manipulations are beautiful. It's not a question of "you might as well write fiction" but rather that "you might as well indulge in your personal essay", which is not to say you should be untruthful, but rather more passionate or articulate than you (or I or most people) are in waking life.

Just a thought.

bloglily.com said...

You did not write that. I refuse to believe it. Well, I believe the extra cheese part, but nothing else.

jrlennon said...

I should add that one of the reasons this preoccupies me is that I'm soon to start working on a novel about a documentary filmmaker...all this stuff is going to come into play. I am increasingly interested in the impossibility of objectivity...

rmellis said...

"As I gazed across the golden landscape, I realized that we were all One. One."

AC said...

Is there some kind of contest for precious endings? I know there's the Bulwer Lytton prize for cheesy opening lines, and that other one for skeeviest sex scene. If there's not one for horridly cutesy endings, there really should be.

jrlennon said...

Damn, girl, you're GOOD.

"Maybe someday, I realized, Mother and I would come to a new understanding: for her, a way to see that I really was my own man; for me, to know the struggle she had gone through to raise me. But for now, I simply put the necklace back into the safe, tiptoed out the door, and shed a single, very masculine, tear."

rmellis said...

Okay, that's OTT.

Matt said...

jr: I cannot help but think of the running gag in Woody Allen's "Love and Death", regarding objectivity:

"...but murder is immoral!"
"Morality is subjective."
"Subjectivity is objective!"