The Truth about Writing “The Truth”
I am a poet sort of prose writer, by which I mean I don’t write to argue or to narrate so much as to listen, illuminate, and wander. I rarely know, when writing essays, where I am going until I get there. “The Truth,” however, was like no other essay I’ve written. A love child of essaying and teaching, the piece is a hybrid of language, nostalgia, obsession, reading, free association, YouTube, pop culture marketing, and hipster coffee shops.
I wrote the first draft of “The Truth” as an invited lecture for MFA students at the Rainier Writing Workshop, where I teach every summer. I was asked to present a talk suitable for graduate students writing in any genre. and when I pitched the idea—a cross-genre discussion on the topic of truth—I had an objective. I wanted to show how the familiar conflict embroiling any meeting of creative nonfiction writers—that slippery argument about whether or not we are allowed to make things up—limits rather than expands the scope of our work, especially when the discussion is dominated by a few grandstanding voices. I always argue on the side of the beautiful fact in these debates (and as I watch the ongoing damage fake news has wrought, of late, on our country I vow repeatedly to argue for journalistic truth harder still). Yet my goal in “The Truth” was to reroute the belletristic conversation, to focus better on the artful layers of what literary artists make, in order to render the boundary between fiction and nonfiction as more than just a line between facts and lies. I hoped to demonstrate the ways fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are different because their intentions are different, illustrating how the genres, in their purest forms, are simply not the same thing.
But I’m terrible at arguing. I’m too associative to stay on task, and too enthralled by the tones and nuances I find along the way. What happened instead was I found myself ruminating on the inherent fluidity of the word “real.” When the memory of an old pop lyric came into my thinking—from Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)— the queer shapeshifting idea of “realness” became the central image of my essayistic braid.
I’m a bit of a sponge, absorbing whatever image or vibe I encounter. I’m easily and happily obsessed with the ways popular culture intersects time and place and often wish I could start over as a geographer or an American Studies scholar. I’m a queer who has spent her creative life unrelentingly engaged with issues of representation. These strands of my biography are part of the reason I didn’t quite write the essay I meant to, though I’m far from done thinking and writing about my initial idea. I did, however, manage to write myself into a new understanding about the quality of truth in any art form.
Sylvester was a 1970s gay femme and disco / R & B / soul singer who first became known as one of the hippy queer performers of San Francisco’s Cockettes. When I fell into the research rabbit hole on all things Sylvester, the path of this essay was set, particularly once I encountered the video interview with comedian and talk show host Joan Rivers. “I’m not a Drag Queen,” Sylvester said to Joan. “I’m Sylvester.” In every writing project that includes research the writer falls upon a detail that becomes the everything of the essay’s discovery journey. This line became my center because it illuminated the dignity of self-definition and the livingness of claiming any human and artistic category as our own.
The other strands of the essay—the literary criticism that started as text-message bantering with a friend about a novel we both loved and had disagreements with, the coffee that preoccupied me because I’m a night owl who knew she had to present a literary talk at 8:30 a.m., the images that started as a slideshow to back up my lecture and became interwoven with the text—all fell into the fold in part because they were things on my mind as I wrote, but more so because I enjoyed the bending and molding, the echoes and repeats. Art is not the news. The truth is made of fact and feeling and atmosphere. The artist’s job is to both immerse and shatter. Our bodies, genders, and genres come alive when we are able create a new language and form to articulate who we will be.