19 April 2011

Of Poetry and Creative Nonfiction

A few months ago, Adam had our old computer reformatted, the same computer I bought upon entering graduate school, the one where all my documents from graduate school were saved. And, of course, because I didn't think of it in time, all of those documents were wiped away (all but my thesis, which luckily I had tucked into a folder on Google Docs). When I realized all that work was gone, I was pretty bummed. It's not information I accessed often, but it was part of my story, a part that is long gone.

On Sunday, when we pulled everything down from the attic, I rummaged through boxes of papers -- Christmas cards, letters, photographs from college. At the bottom of one box were three folders and a three-inch stack of papers, all work from graduate school. I was elated.

Two of the folders are from classes that I'd rather forget -- Sociolinguistics and Bibliography Methods. The other folder is from my first poetry workshop in 2003, and the stack of paper contained the many drafts of my thesis (with notes!) and two papers from my creative nonfiction class.

Yesterday I sat down and read through all of it, laughing at how terrible some of those early poems were and smiling over some of the interesting images therein. Those poems were written before I had a direction for my thesis. They were little experiments, some which were failures and some which were delightful.

Of all of it, the most interesting for me to reread is a paper I wrote on Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments for my creative nonfiction class. Now that I primarily write nonfiction and not poetry, what I wrote in this essay seems particularly salient.

I mentioned Mimi Schwartz who, in her essay "Memoir? Fiction? Where's the Line?", writes that writers of memoir should strive for emotional truth and not worry so much about adhering to perfectly recreated, exact, absolute memories. Then I quote John Irving who reminds the readers of his book Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, "Please remember that all memoir is fiction." About Eggers' book, I wrote:
His life is not seen through a perfectly clear, sharp lens but rather a cloudy, fragmented one, and that the dialogue, characters, and events that have been fictionalized have been changed only in ways that do not distract from the storyline. These elements, in many cases, strengthen the writing because they emphasize the important aspects and collapse the unnecessary.
Why is this so important? Well, I have often started essays about my life and got hung up on the details of it all, which I can't remember. I don't have a tape recorder in my pocket to record all of my conversations; I don't carry a notebook in my pocket and jot down every detail of life as it's happening. Dave Eggers' memoir is just about as radically fictionalized as a memoir could be, but it's still the story of his life according to him. Isn't that what memoir is? It's what the writer felt, saw, and remembered, not necessarily the exact, objective truth of what happened. Who knows the exact, objective truth anyway?

This give me courage. I can tell my story the way I remember it. I can make stuff up if it fits with what I remember. I don't have to beat myself up about the details. I also have courage to start writing poems again, because if I could write bad poems and share them with twelve strangers in a workshop, I can write bad poems again and trust that, with practice, they'll only get better.


Matthew said...

Ooh, does this mean poetry is forthcoming?

jean dunham said...

I'd love to read your essay on Egger's book :)