If you’re writing prose non-fiction, whether it’s memoir, biography or autobiography, you presumably aim for what you think are the facts. If you’re writing prose fiction, you might bring elements of the truth into your story-telling but you and your readers would expect that most of it would be invented. However, if you are a poet, there is very often an assumption by both writers and readers that what you write must be the truth, either of your own or of someone else’s experience, and that you can then generalise from those particularities. I’ll come to the issue of the general versus the particular later. First I want to discuss fact and fiction.
I was in a poetry workshop once with several poets, both beginners and published, and we were listening to a poem about the narrator’s three year old grandson who rode his bike into the road and was killed. An immediate response from a new-comer to the group was: “Oh, Margaret, how awful, I didn’t even know you had a three year old grandson.”
“I haven’t,” said Margaret, “it’s fiction.”
“You mean, you don’t even know someone this happened to? Surely, that’s cheating.”
If Margaret had been reading a short story, her critic would not have equated writer and narrator, not charged her with deception.
Another example of beginner poets’ expectations that poems should deal only with facts, occurs when as writers they add an explanation of the consequences of an event that don’t seem relevant to the central message of the poem. As tutor, I say, “Omit that bit.”
“Oh,” says the beginner poet, “but that’s what happened.”
And as tutor I have to say, “Yes, but you’re not necessarily writing a memoir, you can leave things out or you can say, ‘What if…..’ and invent as much as you like: poetry can be fiction.”
Recently there has been some discussion in the literary press and online about the merits of fiction and creative non-fiction: see for example the review of Jess Crispin’s book, The Dead Ladies Project, suggesting that reading biography is more revealing than reading fiction.
Of course it depends as a writer what you want to write and as a reader what you want to read. But many novelists, historians and sociologists have argued over the years that fiction might well evoke the truths of a period or situation better than non-fiction For example, Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist has said that he can get nearer to the truth in writing fiction than in writing so-called facts. In an interview for the Paris Review, Amos Os says:
The novelist has no political aim but is concerned with truth, not facts. As I say in one of my essays, sometimes the worst enemy of truth is fact. I’m a writer of narrative prose, siporet, but I’m not a prophet or a guide, nor am I an inventor of “fiction.”
And on another occasion in the New York Times he said: ”There is no word in Hebrew for fiction – I boycott that word. It means the opposite of truth. Prose, yes, but not fiction. I write prose. I aim at truth, not facts, and I am old enough to know the difference between facts and truth.”
David Harvey, a geographer at City University, New York, makes a similar case for fiction being nearer to the truth. He suggests that if you want the “facts” about life in the South Wales coalfields in the 1940s and 50s you should read Raymond Williams’ novels, rather than a sociological account of Welsh mining villages. In Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Wiley 1996:28) he says: “the novel is not subject to closure in the same way that more analytic forms of thinking are. There are always choices and possibilities, perpetually unresolved tensions and differences, subtle shifts in structure or feeling all of which stand to alter the terms of the debate and political action, even under the most difficult and dire of conditions.”
And it is this fluidity which is at the same time particular that allows the fiction writer to get nearer the truth even if the facts have been invented. Raymond Williams coined the phrase “militant particularity” to describe the essence of his fiction. Both Williams and Harvey used the idea as a way of discussing local place and communities in relation to political ie socialist action, but I believe the idea is important to writers, whatever genre we are writing regardless of our political beliefs.
All of this brings me back to my earlier suggestion that most fiction writers use real or invented facts to find the truth. As a tutor I sometimes have to persuade students who are writing poetry that they need to do the same thing. Poetry needs images of the particular as much as prose fiction does. So to bring the two aspects of what I’m trying to say together, I always try in my own writing and encourage my students to write about the particular, whether fact or fiction: that way as writers and readers we will all get nearer to the truth.