A Different Kind of Truth: A poet discovers freedom and room to breathe in creative nonfiction
Creative Nonfiction, Summer, vol. 42, 2011. [PDF]
As a poet new to nonfiction, I often found it difficult to flesh out a narrative fully in prose. After conditioning my poetic eye to look for words to cut—those pesky, extraneous articles and conjunctions—I suddenly found myself looking for places where words were missing, where more words were needed. Rather than condensing the back-story to the bare minimum necessary for understanding, I had to learn the importance of including those details—all of those details.
Poems are tightly wound, condensed little animals. They are singular moments in time. Even poems that have a narrative span of years really, ultimately, come down to one moment, one emotion, one truth. To attain this grand moment in the space of 100 lines or five requires not only an attention to brevity in language and figurative speech but to the reader’s physical reaction to the lines. Poets often speak in terms of “breath stations” in a poem—how the reading of the line affects the body, literally. Some lines, short and pulsating, create an intentional rapid breathing in the reader—a pseudo-hyperventilation. Longer lines strive for airy breathlessness, requiring the reader to run out of air before being forced to suck in deep, filling her lungs for the next marathon line. The physical reaction a reader has to a poem is all about the breath. For me, after years of tightening lines, cutting words and searching for perfect breaks, the space prose offers to take slow, rhythmic breaths is exhilarating.
Of course, I am not the only poet to have discovered these liberating elements of nonfiction. Annie Dillard, a writer we quickly identify with creative nonfiction today, was first a poet; her first book was a collection of poetry: “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel” (1974). The collection demonstrates some of the elements that would become the hallmarks of Dillard’s nonfiction. Poets, in particular, have a very specific ear for sound, a singular attachment to metaphor and simile—an intimate relationship, if you will, with language. Dillard explained, via e-mail, “In prose, poetry’s tricks work wonderfully, and no one (to my knowledge) notices them: rhythm, rhyme, slant rhyme, alliteration. They work on the reader’s subconscious. … Prose rhythms are wonderfully powerful and subtle.”
I have spoken with a number of poets about their experiences crossing over to prose and about what I have come to see as a symbiotic relationship between prose and poetry, and virtually all of them mentioned the benefits of applying poetry’s techniques in prose. Gregory Orr explained why he sometimes employed poetic techniques when writing his memoir, “The Blessing”:
One gift I brought to the prose was a tendency to resort to image/metaphor or symbol when a human situation got too intense for me to handle or articulate. It’s something I took for granted in my poetry—I thought of metaphor and image as part of the energy of lyric—but when I found myself resorting to images in the memoir, I noticed it had to do with things getting too intense for me to handle with descriptive or declarative language. This necessary line between emotion and thought is, perhaps, at the heart of why poets turn so frequently to creative nonfiction.
Beth Ann Fennelly says she writes poems to articulate what she’s feeling and essays to articulate what she’s thinking. This is not to say poetry is solely about emotion and nonfiction about thought but rather that each genre offers lessons for the other. According to Molly Peacock,
There’s no better teacher of how to get below the surface of life than poetry. Yet, lyric poetry, because it is largely about feeling, is enhanced when it’s anchored in a thought process. And there’s no better teacher of how to trace a thought than the writing of an essay. Poetry helps essay writing, too. Fact can be animated by metaphor, and feeling can be introduced into thinking.
Whereas poems often ask readers to confront, head on and nonstop, intense emotion, prose welcomes those moments of intensity while providing respite with spans of descriptive or declarative language, and perhaps this is why readers often find prose to be slightly more inviting. Ted Kooser recalls that when he was putting together his book, “Local Wonders; Seasons in the Bohemian Alps,” he chose to rewrite poems as prose because, as he says, “I wanted that book to be especially open to general readers, and I have learned that readers aren’t nearly so intimidated by prose as they are by poetry. With prose, we find ourselves reading before we even think about it, but with poetry, most of us have to adjust for it.”
Fennelly admits she imagines her audience differently when writing in different genres; she says, “I write poems to no one; only later, when they are being published, do I think of them being read. But often when I’m writing nonfiction, I have an audience in mind, and I feel I’m addressing them.” Having a specific audience in mind when writing, says Kooser, allows for the more relaxed language of the essay: “The personal essay seems to me to be the most natural literary form because it is closest to the way in which we converse with others every day, exchanging anecdotes, remarking on the weather, and so on.”
This is likely so because poets, like creative nonfiction essayists, are not typically in the business of creating moments in time from thin air. Poets, for the most part, pull directly from real life. And poets seek, more than anything, truth: emotional truth, literal truth, spiritual truth. In this, they are not so different from nonfiction writers, except in the literary tools at their disposal.
Of course, those tools can make a significant difference. The singularity of emotion and moment in poetry is attained, in lyric poetry especially, through the almost exclusive use of the first person. But this “I,” explains Gregory Orr, is not precisely the “I” of the memoirist:
It’s one way we make meaning, and we’re proud of it; don’t for a minute mistake it for narcissism or even egoism. …In a poem, we certainly could and do acknowledge the impact of an other person on us, but we don’t have that awareness that is second nature to prose writers and novelists: that there are lots of autonomous other people out there beyond our “I” who are living their own lives, with their own drives and longings and personalities and choices totally separate from ours.
Still, this familiarity with the lyric “I,” as Orr intimates, has the potential to make the transition to nonfiction more comfortable for poets. Molly Peacock writes:
[T]he primary reason for my own ambidexterity in these two genres is that they both operate with a single voice. A lyric poem comes from a deeply internal, vatic voice, even if the voice is an assumed one. An essay, a thinking-out of wandering thoughts, also comes from a single voice, one mind as it thinks out its contradictions, wandering from situation to situation. Even if the essay voice is assumed, like a character’s, it still is largely a single voice. Unlike the multiple voices of fiction, plays or films, the essay and the poem come from what the reader construes as one person speaking.
And there is no doubt that a background in writing poetry provides a unique approach to creative nonfiction. Before writing his memoir, “The Blessing,” Gregory Orr says his autobiographical lyric poetry “dramatized the ‘depth’ and subjective dimension of a chosen incident,” but neglected to place isolated events in a larger context. He explained:
[Events] had a “vertical” lyric dimension, but not much “horizontal” narrative extension (because lyric values intensity most of all, or at least I do as a lyric poet). This is probably an abstract way of saying two key things. The first is that I wasn’t very good at extending a situation into a story, because I had too much interest in the intensity of particular moments. The second was that like a lot of people whose lives are punctuated by recurring trauma, I had tended to “encapsulate” the trauma into isolated episodes, which I had learned how to talk about (and write about) but hadn’t integrated into a coherent and relatively complete narrative of a life (my life) across time. In other words, I didn’t put together a “timeline” as the police investigators call it—didn’t/hadn’t linked up the isolated incidents of my life so that I saw that “Event A” came before “Event D” and, therefore, might have something to do with setting up the circumstances or conditions for “D” to occur. This timeline thing is probably so obvious to prose writers that it is laughable, but for lyric poets, it’s something we have to learn (or I did).
Indeed, poets writing creative nonfiction have to learn a great many things; we have to learn how to breathe all over again. And while we encourage young poets to stray from the truth when writing, this is not because we are looking for fiction but because we want them to seek out the larger truth in the moment being described. Whereas a poet might change a few details, or most of them, in a poem, creative nonfiction holds writers to the facts. This is, at times, inconvenient. But what I’ve learned is that this discipline—different from the measured discipline of constructing lines and the economy of phrasing—offers the poet a chance to tell a different kind of truth. It forces us to find only the truth the events reveal, rather than the truth we (sometimes) want to expose.