February Reflections

February Reflections

Mary Tabor, writing in Wattpad (Jan. 9, 2016), challenges “our” resistance to fiction in “How Does Autobiography Work in Fiction?” She writes passionately about the ways in which story as fiction is truer to an author’s experience than the “factual” storyline of memoir. In her book The Woman Who Never Cooked (published on Wattpad), Mary juxtaposes “factual” memoir and fictional counterparts to show that “The fictional account of my stories has greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual ones.”

Sidestepping issues around what is truth and who is the self (!), her passionate defense reminded me that the first assignment I gave psychology interns was to read a selection of the classics (Russians, Dickens, Austin) and the modernists (Woolf, Faulkner et al.) and more contemporary work like Lessing and Munro. (Now I would also recommend Atwood.) I assured students that they would learn more about human behaviour from these works than from any psychology text or test.

What better platform from which to acknowledge the postmodern view that there are many ways of knowing and many truths to a fact, and then to transcend nihilism/ skepticism with a more metamodern pragmatism? If, in spite of the theory of relativity, Newton’s Law is still used to build bridges, surely we can hang delve into notions of realness within the stories we inhabit.

Her article poked me in the academic arm and I had fun looking up definitions of truth/non-fiction and fiction.

Truth: “Accuracy, exactness, fact, genuineness, legitimacy, reality, validity, veracity, precision.” Interesting to see genuineness, as if integrity is bound up with what one can see-in-the-world i.e. the public face. What is accepted, allowed.

Fiction: “Non-existent! lie, falsehood, unreal, bogus, misrepresentation. But then there is also myth, legend, make-believe, invention, creation, fantasy, tale, story, yarn. Private. Intimate life.” Unspoken truths. Silenced voices.

It seems to me that when we “trans”cend existential worrying about self, origin, ideality, sincerity and step outside the binary box of true/false, fact/fiction, then resistance to fiction can be seen as reluctance to know/explore the world of unwelcome thoughts, of emotional and spiritual worlds that are deemed to be best left unsaid, i.e. what is outside, alongside social and cultural norms.

Daily life is the material for story as fact and fiction. Rather than either/or we can talk about experiences lived at many levels/layers and about the social cultural norms around what is allowed to be expressed and what is not. And where such outspokenness can be lived. And where not.

Mary champions self-revelatory writing that reveals “those truths that would otherwise remain unspoken” and quotes David Foster Wallace: “[self-revelatory writing] allows…a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness … I feel human and unalone.”

Is self-revelatory writing another literary device/“artifice”? like metaphor, narrator position and structure? Or is it a cyclical spiral back to what was once called modernism’s radical self-conscious reflexiveness, and a contemporary means to reach/reveal the personal/subjective? Mary takes a systemic approach to point out (what, as she says, most writers and artists know in their core) that the writing process reveals a layer of experience not usually allowed in more factual memoir. Agreed. However, all writing is a process, a verb, rather than a noun as she puts so well. And the self–revelatory is not confined to fiction. Such writing is found in many memoirs, and of course in poetry:

Minnie Bruce Pratt, in Herizons Winter 2012 Vol. 25 #3, said: “Poetry is the verbal art form best suited to this age. It is a matter of paying attention in the moment so that you truly experience what moves you in the thing. It may come from your life or somebody else’s or the newspaper or something fleetingly observed or overheard, but it has something in it that wants to be intensely examined, experienced, made into an artifact.”

Emily Dickinson opens the space even wider to encompass expressions of beauty and the soaring soul: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off I know that is poetry.”

Mary points out that the great modernists “revolutionized technique” in the way that they used their intimate personal lives as material for their work. In doing so, they also challenged permissible perspectives i.e. what is allowed into literary (and popular) discourse. I would like to take that a step further … and question language.

In doing so I have been guided by writers like Audre Lorde and bel hooks who challenged languages to reveal the voices silenced in patriarchy (women, sexual orientation, race, class). Reading Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in The Cancer Journals lifted me up from a sense of lonely “maybe I am a crazy, whiny, dissatisfied, unfulfilled woman” to a feeling of belonging to a (small) group of women “warriors,” to use Lorde’s words. I was encouraged to keep on delving/thinking/writing in the face of disbelief, ridicule, and worse, indifference. In my lifelong work as psychotherapist, writer, artist and social activist I kept at it, attempting, however frustratingly inadequate it often seemed to be, to uncover/allow silenced voices, to speak the unspeakable out loud: “… the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger.” (Cancer Journals) 

Courage and determination and a sense of not alone are one thing. But how to speak the unspeakable? Lorde herself was discouraged: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Sister Outsider.

I wonder: Women are still ridiculed in all of the media for being “too sensitive” about “minor” sexist/racist attitudes and comments. How far have we come in speaking out loud—so that we are heard?

I wonder: Is the way I write shaped not only by a (perhaps not so residual) fear of speaking out, but also by the difficulty of finding a way to do so in a way that ensures listening. And action?

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