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You Can't Handle the Truth - Or Can You?

For a couple of months now, I’ve been playing a little game with myself when I sit down to revise a poem. The game is called: “How True Is This Really?” I’m finding that this one little question, applied kindly but also kind of relentlessly to everything I write, is changing the way I work with - what Anne Lamott calls in her classic, Bird by Bird - shitty first drafts.

I’ve been writing poems for a while now, I’ve taken a lot of classes, I’ve read my fair share of books on writing, and I can’t say that I’ve ever come across an approach to revision that’s had such a profound effect on what I say and how I say it. So I thought it might be worth a look here in Blogsville…for those who are actively writing and revising and even for those who are just looking to be more truthful in their lives, day to day.

So let me jump in here by saying that I’m generally inspired to write about what I’ve seen or experienced, firsthand. Not all of my poems contain autobiographical material, but most of them do. I’ve written a few poems recently that stretch beyond the limits of my own life, but even though the explorations are larger in scope (hopefully), they still contain plenty of detail mined from my past and present. A lot of poets write from and through their lives, and I’ve noticed that many poets actually cross over into memoir at some point in their careers. Nick Flynn, Mary Karr, Mark Doty and Maya Angelou are a few of my favorite hybrids.

Of course one of the main attractions of memoir…and of personalized poetry…is its proximity to real events. The things you’re reading about in both cases are true stories as seen through the lens of the writer. If the writer is skilled and gutsy enough to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in his/her work, the end result is - more often than not - going to resonate with a reading audience.

I’m not an expert in memoir (although I do have a dusty manuscript in my upstairs closet - more on that later), but I know enough about the genre to say that “telling the truth” in that form is an often-discussed question. How to represent the reality of a lived experience in memoir - and even in poetry - is not always clear-cut. I’ve come to realize that there are more and less true ways to handle the truth, and this is what I’ve been delving into lately…in my own creative work and in sessions with friends and clients who are looking to develop a piece of writing.

A few months ago, I came across a poem that I’d written about breaking up with an ex-boyfriend. Personally, I think romance-gone-wrong poems are pretty hard to pull off. Mine was just plain baaaad. Sure, that draft was a true story in the sense that it focused on a break-up that actually happened. But the intensity of the experience was nowhere to be found in that piece of writing. So what do you do with something like that? You’ve got a true story on your hands, but what you’ve written rings false.

I reread my poem with some questions in mind - things like: does this stanza express how I truly felt? Is this image what I really paid attention to at the time? When I applied some of these questions to the poem, I realized that most of what I’d written was not actually all that real. The piece had a removed, distant sheen. The details I’d highlighted did not show any of the loss or vulnerability in this life event. I started to realize that if I wanted to genuinely revise this poem, I’d need to do a swan dive into some different, more deeply-felt details - ones that might be a bit disordered or painful to recall. My willingness to go into these places, to step off the cliff and speak from the center of my memory (instead of from a safe, intellectualized edge) would really be the only way to get a true story out of this true story.

And so I started a weeks-long revision process that (I’m not gonna lie!) was a bit grueling at times. I tried to hold myself to a new standard of honesty which required some real emotional and creative stamina. It’s not easy to represent a challenging truth in depth and in detail. But this process - of peeling away protective layers and cute little lies that might seem clever at first - is essential if you hope to produce a genuine product.

The best comedians make us laugh because their stories and jokes are so undeniably, hilariously true. They give voice to things that we’ve felt and thought and feed our truth back to us in the most entertaining ways. The same holds for writing. We love stories that are genuine and transparent because they reach our truest selves. Courage and authenticity inspire courage and authenticity. So with this in mind, I’m going to keep at this truth thing, challenging myself as much as I can to plow past my usual writing and revising limits…and maybe one day reach a creative place that’s so clearly true, it’s not even a question anymore.