facing up to fiction

cornfield (maize) after harvest
Several lists of “rules for poetry” have been doing the rounds this week, perhaps in response to these 25 rules for editing poems from Rob Mackenzie for Magma Poetry.

It’s hard to disagree with anything Mackenzie says, particularly as the list is followed by the rider “good poets are always ready to break rules whenever a poem demands it.”

That said, the “rule” that caught my eye was:

15. Consider the poem’s “truth”. Not the literal facts (although those may be important at times) but the emotional resonance. Is the emotion genuine or just received wisdom?

It’s a while since I mentioned the narrator here on the blog, but I’m currently taking a course on non-fiction, and those fraternal twins, writer and narrator, have been much on my mind again as they wander the borderlands of truth and lie, fact and fiction.

I’ve never had any qualms about manipulating facts to produce better poetry: I believe, as Mackenzie seems to imply, that the poem’s “truth” stands above the need to keep to literal details. It’s never occurred to me, though, that by changing details my poetry has become fiction. I hope, rather, that it’s become closer to a “higher truth”, and surely Truth can’t be classed as Fiction?

Still, poetry seems to function in a world of its own and perhaps most people only think of fact and fiction as categories for prose.

Among the genres under discussion on the course I’m doing are memoir and travel writing and I am intrigued by the question of when the manipulation of literal facts turns memoir or travel literature into a work of fiction.

An article from the BBC last year discussed the issue with respect to travel writing. It opens:

Many bestselling and award-winning travel writers have turned out to be distinctly unreliable narrators. Should we file their books under fact – or fiction? And do readers really care?

I am so used to picking and choosing which details to include, so used to merging places, people and events in order to create the intended poetic effect, that I am perfectly happy to do so in my prose. When I write a travel newsletter for a client I pick the images that they want to show and I people the settings with characters who best illustrate the experience they want to sell. I’m not writing a guidebook and I’m not guaranteeing that every visitor to the location will meet those people in that identical setting, but I’ve never felt I was writing fiction.

A few years ago I was working on a translation with a Spanish author; the writing was inspired by the time she spent in India in the Seventies, but she always referred to it as her novel. Even so, she wasn’t at all happy when I suggested alterations that would have made the story work far better: she insisted things had to be told the way they really happened.

Perhaps the problem is that “the way it really happened” is itself a fiction.

In physics, it’s recognised that the observer reacts with the observed, and we know that a person’s perspective, personal prejudice and expectations influence the way they view events. (Not to mention the time factor – the field in the photo above was eight feet high with maize last week; now it’s nothing but stubble: two very different truths were separated by a mere 24 hours.) Add to that the inadequacies of memory, and no personal account can be relied on. Does that really make every account fictional?

I feel a bit like Molière’s character who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life: must I admit that I am actually a fiction writer?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

3 thoughts on “facing up to fiction”

  1. I think it’s crucial that Mackenzie asks the poet to stick to the *emotional* truth. In writing memoir, I feel that’s my primary purpose: to give the reader “my truth” about past events, which I think comes down to feeling what I felt in living through them and in living in light of them afterward.

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    1. Yes. I think perhaps an autobiographer has the obligation/responsibility to be objective, while the reader learns about the writer of a memoir through their view and interpretation of events: if they aren’t emotionally involved – and therefore biased – why are the events important enough to be selected?

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