Monthly Archives: June 2014

Whose Biography? A Writer’s Fact Is Always a Reader’s Fiction

A blog post by Bluestem Poetry Reader Steve Nathaniel:

Is that true?

The question quickest to hand when I hear literary confessions may be the wrong one. I decided to rethink this knee-jerk reaction after I read “Based on a True Story. Or Not” in which Kathleen Rooney discusses the pitfalls of assuming creative writing to be auto-biographical. She suggests that “if we feel as though we’ve somehow been cheated, is that on us? I’d argue that it probably is.” She goes on to explain that every reader assumes autobiography at their own peril. However, when Rooney later discusses willful deception, specifically fictitious holocaust memoirs, she doesn’t distinguish between this fraud and the fiction of Brian Russell whom she endorses. Instead of clarifying, she clouds with the vacuous judgment of the fictitious memoirs, “because they are inexcusable.” This tells me only that one poetry editor will excuse one fiction and not another. How we sort them seems to me the crux of the whole problem.

The question of why we expect creative writing to be autobiographical seems a reasonable starting point. As I see it, the more I allow a writer to conduct my emotions, the more I accept their authority. Re-reading Seamus Heaney in memoriam, I think over “Mother of the Groom” where he describes a mother’s “hands in her voided lap,” and I trust that he knows enough about youth and aging that he can speak for a mother. I trust that he has built a bridge from my bit of humanity to another, that crossing it I won’t be tricked. While there are better veins of communication from which to draw historical facts, we trust creative writers to speak, at least, with emotional sincerity, and so we trust them to speak from the authority of lived life. This is not to say that lived life is not transferable, but any artist’s ability to tell truth weakens as their content drifts from what they know.

Of course, when I speak of an artist’s ability to “tell truth,” I don’t mean transfer truth. K.R.S. Iyengar articulates the widely held view that “poetry by its very nature is untranslateable.” I will go so far to say that all communication is from one language to another; the writer’s reader is always a translator too because every person communicates from a unique set of lived images, memories, and associations. A writer can’t expect any specific image to arise in their reader. Instead, the reader populates a writer’s language with their own lived images. There is no question of fact or fiction, auto-biography or biography; every writer deals in proximity. So where does this leave us?

I make sense of it by imagining a spectrum upon which every writer situates their work. On one end of the spectrum I see writing that is so faithful to its speaker’s experience that it becomes abstruse beyond hope of access. On the other end is writing which embraces all experiences, especially those foreign to the writer. These writers discount the possibility that theirs may contradict the work of other artists who have lived the subject matter. Consider the writers on each end: they fail their audience. Instead, I think I’ll try to resist the force of these magnetic poles and strive to write in that strain.

-Steve Nathaniel