Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. (Ben Tanzer, Megan Stielstra, Jamie Iredell, Wendy Ortiz, Anna March) What does it mean to write a personal essay in the age of the internet? And how do we decide what is truth when we as writers are expected to tangle with the pressure to create public personas? The personal essayists on this panel will discuss how they maneuver through these challenges–building brand, navigating social media, defining creative nonfiction, and yes, finding the truth in our writing, when the truth is filtered through the endless platforms that comprise our lives today. Continue reading
I’ll just say this to start with: the absence of Judith Kitchen gave this panel a palpable sense of loss. At the same time, she was overwhelmingly present in both spirit and influence, giving the event a rich sense of joy and celebration, as well.
The main question of the panel can be summed up as follows: What role can speculation play in a genre that purports to tell the truth? And the answers to this question, as you might expect, were many and various.
It seems like every nonfiction class I’ve taken has included explorations of truth. One of my professors, John T. Price, put it nicely during my undergrad, saying that this ethical dimension is arguably the factor that most distinguishes fiction from nonfiction.
See what I did there? Paraphrased it, because I’m not sure anymore exactly how he said it. If I was back home in Omaha, I could probably find the notebook that I used for that course, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the exact quote, but here in Minneapolis I am SOL.
I’m not here to nitpick, and I don’t think this panel was either. It focused more on honesty than truth. “Be honest with yourself.”
It’s a total cliché, but like most clichés, these four words mean more than we immediately recognize. It seems easy, a cliché, and I’ve always loved and resisted them because of this. It sounds like something that a person should be able to just… do. Maybe this is why I write—ever since I was young, I haven’t been able to stop myself from asking, “Yes, well, but, how?”
I don’t believe that people purposefully deceive themselves, and that’s what makes this sort of honesty—self-awareness—so difficult. We don’t necessarily recognize when we’re deceiving ourselves, and we’ll never be perfectly aware of our biases. As Stephen Elliott said during this presentation, we can never be perfectly honest because that would require perfect self-knowledge, which is impossible for a growing changing human.
I’ve been reflecting on this conundrum since the panel, and have returned again and again to a few of these ideas. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, I won’t be able to be anything but honest about other characters, about situations, and about my story. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, readers will feel it and they will continue to read. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, well, how can I be sure?
Total objectivity is an unrealistic goal, and the essayist in me resists concluding by answering my own question, anyway. However, it seems to me that in attempting to take on the perspective of another character, I can get at some of my self-deception. If I cannot get a bird’s eye view, then at least I can get the opposite angle. It’s biased, to be sure, but still seems more honest than to reach for total objectivity. For complexity and depth, I’m thinking the non-perspective won’t work as well as an opposing view.
I’ll leave you with another idea that all of the panelists touched before listing my favorite (paraphrased) lines from each.
Krista Bremer: Don’t think of creativity as altering facts or making something up. Think of it as generating new insights from fixed experience.
Sy Safransky: Bring the same reverence to your work that you would to an intimate conversation.
Stephen Elliott: In order to write something readable and interesting, you may need to accept that two incompatible truths are both equally true.
Patricia Foster: Three questions: What have I come to tell? Why do I need to tell it? What lies in the way? If I can’t answer these questions, I write falsely.
Lee Martin: Either memoir convinces a reader or it doesn’t. If it’s not convincing, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s true.
Leslie Sears is a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and has received several publications and awards through her university. Her blog–though barely up and running–explores spirituality and single momhood, and she’d be totally stoked if you read it (mommyheathen.wordpress.com). She loves tattoos, Gatorade, and the LEGO movie.