Recently, a young woman on my Facebook page won a writing contest. She’s been struggling, like most writers, to get her voice heard. Winning the contest was validation of her talent. But why did she succeed now where in the past, she’d faced rejections? The difference this time, I suppose, was that she was writing from personal experience. Her story had authenticity.
Of course all stories have authenticity because they rise from the inner landscape of the mind — a reality that makes me smile each time I hear the disclaimer, “I don’t read much fiction. I prefer facts.” But what can be more slippery than facts? History is the fiction of conquerors, after all.
Sally Mann is an artist who works with a camera. Does the camera never lie or distort to create a fiction that leads to an unseen truth? Of course it does and Mann would agree. Criticized for creating landscapes in which her children appear naked, she defends her “exploitation” of them and accuses her critics of being blind. Her children are not the subject. Mann is creating a landscape, a sense of place in which the children appear as natural to it. (“Instill Life,” by Cara Parks, New Republic, June 2015, pgs. 70-72.) To see only the children is to see nothing.
Mann’ knows that to use the camera to expose inner landscapes is to risk being misunderstood. Nonetheless, what it exposes is as true as any event, like the bombing of the twin towers. Reality, history — all of it is perception. “The mind sees always whatever it wants,” Mann writes. (Ibid, pg. 73.) No Platonic truth lies beyond the cave.
Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend. He is talented and sensitive and when his mental afflictions permit, he writes devastatingly beautiful poetry. As we sat over our lattes, he told me a story that pierced my heart. This friend is a homosexual, but years ago, he had an affair with the only woman for whom he could feel attraction. The relationship was deep and intense, but eventually the couple parted. For many years, he heard nothing from her. Then, a week ago, his phone rang late at night. The woman he had once loved was reaching out to him from across the miles. She told him she was dying of cancer. She had only a short time to live and wanted to spend what remained in his arms. She still loved him.
I don’t know how the story will end, but I wish to heaven I could write it. But it’s his story. Told as a poem, a fiction or a memoir, truth will be at the heart of it.