“What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”
--The Viking Portable Nietzsche, p.46-7
I have been writing and performing poems, stories and essays about my life and experiences and the world I live in for over three decades. I’ve written about surviving sexual abuse and domestic violence. I’ve written about struggling with sexism and how my privilege as a white woman fighting patriarchy complicates allyship work with communities of color. I’ve performed pieces about transphobia, class struggles, having sex in a body that did not feel safe much of the time and in a world that did not have my safety in mind. I’ve written about my individual experiences in collective work.
I wrote and performed these pieces with a poetic and artistic license that allowed me to focus on bringing the listener into an experience, on creating an emotional journey. I did not concern myself with whether or not a particular memory or detail was factual or “objectively true.” When I drafted a poem about seeing a homeless man masturbating on a street corner and the inhumanity of having to be “home” inside an urban prison, I did not worry about whether or not his hair was really black as I recalled. I did not march back to the corner to confirm there was a bank at the intersection as I wrote in my piece. I didn’t think about such things. I focused on sharing the feelings and experiences not on documenting exactly what happened.
As a writer, I want to be able to share my experiences and tell a good story. For me, this involves taking bits of truth and fact and mixing them with elements that are interesting, poetic, and sometimes not entirely historically accurate. I would like to be able to do this without a disclaimer on every piece stating that while this or that element is based on events in my life, the story is not entirely “true.” I want to do this without labeling these essays fiction. Maybe I want too much. When I shared a story about my dog getting lost, I did not go back and fact check the organization that helped me find him to confirm the set up their makeshift office in front of the animal shelter. The name of the organization in the story is fake. I made it up because the story was not about their particular organization or their work. The people in my fake organization were characters some based loosely on some of the people I met. The part about wearing a neon safety vest was true. The overall storyline, my experience, my feelings and thoughts were all true.
When I started writing and sharing my experiences of abuse, I chose to be vague on the particulars of who and when, and detailed on the particulars of how, what and why. Instead of trying to document only events I could prove, I worried about the sounds of the words, the rhythm and the emotional content. I concentrated on how to move people, let them experience what I was feeling; then and now. This was, and still is, more important to me than naming the particular people who caused harm or creating a verifiable or chronological document of what transpired. Like many trauma survivors, I have snippets of memories, fractured and sensory. I wanted to share these memories as they are held in my body, not rip them out so they can be fact checked.
Now that I am writing more of what I call narratives or essays rather than poems and am writing works to be read rather than performed, I find myself hesitating at important junctures. Because I am telling a story in a different kind of way, with a different structure, I am bumping up against the pressure to tell “a truth” that I cannot tell. I find myself stumbling into the literary assumption that if a story is not specifically declared fiction, it must be true. And if it is true, everything in the story must be factual.
I feel a cultural tension inside this assumption, a uniquely American pursuit of “the truth” in the air as I hold my black pilot pen over my Meed Composition journal to write a sentence. In that very pregnant pause, my inner storyteller and the voices in my head argue wildly. These imagined conversations used to paralyze me. Part of me was convinced that if I wrote an essay that included anything about my experience of being sexually abused, I had to track down every detail to make sure it was factual and could be verified. This was, and still is, overwhelming. It is also rooted in a victim blaming culture. A culture that demands those who survive abuse, prove that something happened by providing verifiable facts that can be corroborated. This reinforces power structures that re-victimize many survivors who struggle to navigate relationships and social structures complicated by power and privilege. It ignores the reality that many people store memories and recall overwhelming or traumatic events in sensory, non-linear, unstructured and fractured ways. It also ignores the fact that many survivors are unable or unwilling to be in contact with anyone who could verify events or details.
Our memories, like the whispered phrases in the game of telephone, not only fade with time, they are altered as we move through our lives, and they change each time we recall them. Memories shift as we heal and as we apply different meanings to events. Our memories are not static. They evolve as we do, shape-shifting to reflect the complicated intersections of present and past; of emotion and meaning; of thought and storytelling. What matters to most of us living with and in these shape shifting realities is that our stories, our memories, are not more or less important depending on whether or not they can be measured, weighed and accurately accounted for by objective or scientific means.
I do not want the way I share experiences to be held hostage to how well I can do research or offer evidence that proves my experience is real. I am not the least bit interested in verifying whether I was in a cabin in northern California, a dorm room at the University my father taught at, or at a neighbor’s house when I remember sitting on someone’s lap, listening to a bedtime story trying to figure out how to make large and calloused fingers stop pinching and pulling as I squirmed and made up excuse after excuse to get away.
I am struck that readers sometimes feel betrayed when they find out something in a “true” story is not objectively factual. This sense of betrayal is rooted, in part, in a desire to find a reflection of themselves inside some aspect of the narrative, and the conviction that this reflection must based in “facts.” If I wrote that I was in a California cabin when an adult fondled me as he read me a bedtime story, when in reality, I was in an apartment in Michigan, would it matter? If so, why? If you connected with my narrative or the experiences I shared, would your sense of connection be any less if you discovered the location had not been verified but based on a fragmented memory and the preference for placing the narrative in California because I like the way the word fits in a sentence? It is assumed that writers will not simply access memory, but seek to verify memories so that they are “accurate.”
I want us to hold with more curiosity, reverence and complexity, the various ways we share narratives and the varying, shape-shifting ways we all see and remember reality. I want to witness and hold Nietzsche’s metal without demanding that we recognize it only as a coin.
There has to be more than two categories for sharing our experiences. I do not want my stories categorized entirely as fiction simply because I want to focus on the story rather than creating a document that stands up to fact checking. Works that are rooted in real experiences will always exist in the intersections of memory, witnessing, sharing, and storytelling. This is, I believe, how we experience most of our reality--fractured, sensory and partial, prioritized through our particular lens and shaped by our histories and who and how we are in the world.
There are many different ways to tell a story. To have our stories be defined as either fact or fiction does not honor the complexity of our lived experiences and it shuts down imagination or relegates it to “fantasy”. The people in my world are themselves and they are also symbols, triggers, representations of emotions, containers of experiences, bodies onto whom I project my own fears, insecurities and desires. I want narratives to be able to hold this complexity. I do not think focusing on “the facts” always helps us. It distracts us from the multi-layered, shape-shifting ways we are in the world. Focusing on whether or not something in a particular story is “true”, guides us in a very particular way and informs how we listen, read and learn. Focusing on facts in a story is not bad or wrong, but I want more ways to read, to listen, to understand, to integrate and to experience.
I will continue to write my essays the way I do. I will undoubtedly continue to struggle with the categories we currently have and try to breathe life into a sense of curiosity, expansion and complexity with each and every decision I make when I choose to tell a story that is true and very real but not completely based on facts. I hope you keep reading.