Writing is art. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but it’s a phenomenon that I’m sure veteran writers have been dealing with for ages. What I mean when I say writing is art is that even if the writing is labeled “nonfiction,” it is a creative endeavor. It is not intended to represent the whole truth, nor can it. It is a slice of life, a snapshot, one angle on the truth in any given moment. That is not to say nonfiction writing is a lie – it’s not! But it is a piece of writing. It is not meant to convey the totality of the feelings and intentions of the writer.
Neither should the writer attempt to explain, justify, or soften the writing. This can be very slippery territory indeed. I’ve never published anything I regret, but I do wish I hadn’t answered questions about some of my pieces, and I have vowed never to do it again. Once, after reading a poem I’d placed in a lit journal, a well-meaning relative asked, “Was this about so-and-so?” She already knew who the poem was about, I’m sure, because enough of the details were recognizable. So the question caught me off guard and I answered, “Yes.”
“I thought so!” She sounded pleased – she’d solved a puzzle. She knew the inside story. And I instantly regretted affirming her suspicions – because the poem didn’t tell the whole truth. It was only one piece, one facet. If you read that poem and thought, “This is what Jennifer thinks about so-and-so,” you’d be wrong. Did the poem represent a thought I’d had once about so-and-so? Sure. A recurring thought, even. A poetic thought. But it wasn’t the complete story. A poem can’t be the complete story. It’s a poem.
Works of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction alike take on a life of their own. Writers know what I mean. When I sit down to write a personal essay, I have something I want to say, but then at some point, craft intervenes. I’m not suggesting everything I write is some monumental achievement of craft, but the aesthetic is there. My writing needs to have tone, cadence, flow, internal consistency. An essay needs to stand alone, to be cohesive. As I’m writing, these elements start to matter. So, sometimes I include ideas that fit with the piece the way it is taking shape, and I omit others that don’t. To quote filmmaker Robert Flaherty, “Sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth.” There are no lies in my nonfiction writing, but sometimes the whole truth is confusing, incongruent, too large in scope. As a writer, it’s my job to pare it down.
To tell the whole story in any given piece would be an insurmountable undertaking, and the result would be ridiculous and contradictory. I can’t write: This person really pissed me off, but then I thought about it later and I could see where all the years of abuse she endured while in foster care really affected her ability to emotionally connect, and all things considered she really meant well, so although I felt uncomfortable at the time I guess it was really okay. Maybe. It might be the whole truth, but it’s awful writing. (Unless you’re Allen Ginsberg…then it’s genius.) When I’m writing, I have to stick to the topic and slice through. The result is a cross-section, like a single image from a CT scan. At times the whole picture is unrecognizable from the slices. So it is with art.
It’s important to remember that a piece of writing isn’t a doorway to the innermost thoughts of the writer, or even a window – it’s a keyhole.
There’s another arty element at work here too – the reader. People probably won’t like me saying this (oooh…controversial!) but I think writing is a bit of a Rorschach test. We definitely recognize this factor when viewing paintings. For instance, why is the Mona Lisa smiling? There are a zillion interpretations, and her expression evokes different responses in different people. We’re often comfortable with this type of ambiguity in visual art.
People don’t tend to think of writing this way, though, unless it’s poetry, and even then we often assume there is one “correct” meaning, that the intentions of the writer are present and decipherable in the text. We seem to think that because words have prescribed definitions in certain contexts that we can take them at face value and can read a piece and analyze the writer, the writing, and the subject matter.
I suggest that this is not true! What a reader takes from any given piece of writing just may say as much about his or her own prejudices, predilections, and state of mind as it does about the writer. Some pieces of creative writing are clearly more subjective than others, but it’s an idea worth considering. In the eye of the beholder, and all that…
There’s a quote I love by Stephen King, from his book On Writing. He says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” If he’s right, polite society and I parted company quite some time ago. I’m okay with it, but I’m still learning how to share my writing, how to respond to the varied reactions I get respectfully while remaining true to my own intentions. I’m finding that in these situations, what I don’t say is every bit as important as what I do say – just like when I’m writing. When I can’t speak to the whole truth, I’m just as honest as I can be – and I try to make it sound good. That’ll have to do.