I’ve always thought that in some ways writers of creative non fiction are close to poets– that the search for the emotional truth of a thing is similar in both genres. But now that I’ve been taking a poetry workshop I’m not so sure. Poets are different. Not in a bad way, but they think differently. They like to move commas and cut words, and play
on the page, much more so than you’re average creative non fiction writer.
Even a lyric essayist.
They’re also more willing to sacrifice what Tim O’Brien calls “happening truth” not in service of what O’Brien calls “story truth” but rather in service of emotional truth and image. This is the part of poetry I find most difficult.
I submitted a poem to my workshop that admittedly needs work. At least the second section (maybe it doesn’t even need to be sectioned, or…). I will share it here for your viewing pleasure:
frozen at the doorway
it was a dream, no
a movie I watched once
lights flashing like red lightening, or
not an ambulance
not that ambulance
everyone in slow motion—
on the floor, tiny and still
in a dream
You came back
stood at the foot of my bed
squeezed my toes
“It will be okay” You said
You are still
A couple of notes… the title: I am terrible at titles. Every now and again I nail one, like “Reconstructing My Mother” I think is a great title for my memoir, but “dream” … not so much.
Section II. I indented to indicate a shift, a lapse of time, a new understanding. Probably doesn’t work, but hey! I wanted to play with placement of text on page. Also, Section II (written just for this workshop) is clearly not as tight as Section I (which I’ve been tweaking for the last year and a half or so).
So what does this have to do with “happening truth” and “emotional truth” and “story truth?” you’re probably asking yourself. Hang tight. You’ll see.
My professor, the brilliant Dana Levin who is known to advise: “Revise Towards Strangeness” suggested some changes I found quite uncomfortable, unsettling even. That in the second section, that we SEE the mother (good advice) and that perhaps she has only one arm or something (BLASPHEMY! that’s not how it happened! ).
Now I’m not saying that your average CNF writer won’t adjust a few details, add a little dialog here or there, embellish, conflate, compress, or move scenes for effect. I’m okay with that. For the record, though, I’m not okay with CNF writers who make shit up (then get into big trouble).
But removing an arm from my dead mother?! Are you kidding me??? That’s just 1. WEIRD! seriously weird! and 2. WRONG, just wrong. Isn’t her deadness bad enough? do we have to mutilate her in a poem as well?
So how do I revise? I can’t cut off her arm, so I may just surgically remove Section II and leave it as one small moment on the page.
I do admit, however, that playing with words, thinking imagistically, tightening prose into poem is, in the long run (I hope) good for my prose writing.