I’ve made a tremendous mistake.
I wrote a poem. This, certainly, was not the mistake.
I published the poem. Also not the mistake.
Within this poem, I told a (“based on a true story”) story and aimed, however feebly, at an aching truth, which was not altogether reliant on the facts of the original story but the overarching truth the story represented. These, too, were not the mistakes; they were my poetic license.
I employed harsh language and raw details, some of which I embellished for the sake of the truth at which I was ultimately aiming. Again, neither of these are the mistake, even as the larger issues loom: how to best mirror reality without glorifying it, how and when to meaningfully portray what is harsh and raw about this world we inhabit. And, of course, the old pulsing paradox—“fabrication” for the sake of “truth”—these beg meditation, consideration, pause.
I must and do continually think on and work through these things because I seek to handle, investigate, and plunge into the dark if only to name it lucidly enough to steer clear of it. I can’t apologize for that.
So, my mistake? Here it is: my mistake was in the naming. I used real names. Yes, the real names of real people. I was not wholly adherent to the biographical, historical facts even though I used biographical, historical elements, such as the real names of real people. I made the story recognizable to people who will know these names when I could have just as easily not.
In doing so, I have deeply hurt a dear friend. I betrayed her confidence in telling me the details of the story, in which my participation had been minimal and which only should have been mine to tell had I adequately camouflaged the original figures. I must face, then, that I have made a serious mistake—an ethical one that leads to questions about my character.
This is no Victorian blemish. It’s a plain old and very contemporary wrong doing, artistic but also moral. And it was based largely on folly—a naïveté I should have anticipated and corrected: honest, I didn’t think about who would read the poem.
I thought few people indeed would be reading it, certainly not anyone who knew the named parties (none of whom are able read, either because they are deceased or otherwise incapacitated), not even the friend who’d shared the details I employed in shaping the poem.
Let me be clear: this is an incredibly myopic understanding of readership, one I’ve nursed—foolishly, I say—since a conversation many years ago with a notable poet who conspiratorially related to me that the best place for poems about people you know, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, the whole lot of them, is right in the middle of a book of (your) poems. The very people you’ve written about will buy the book, pat you on the back, and, at the very most, read the first and maybe the second poem, then blithely put the book on the shelf, never to be touched again.
No one, after all, reads poetry. Right?
So wrong. So very wrong.
This friend—who went out of her way to get her hands on my work and who read it cover to cover—also had the courage to confront me, and in her (justified) anger, she challenged me about my art—about all art—challenges which have kept me up at night, searching out reasons and going over my blunder(s) like a tongue seeks out and runs itself again and again over a painful spot in the mouth. Most of those challenges, many of them named above, were not ultimately where I failed. But I opened the door to those possibilities with the mistake that I did make.
And so I begin the year with a savage understanding of my own failings. I start this year, too, with a tender new respect for who reads poetry, how it affects its readers, and why writers must take significant and serious pains in thinking about those readers, most particularly the ones we care something about.
To paraphrase Annie Dillard (who, after all, writes nonfiction and has far less—or at least a very different kind of—“license” than those of us who pen fiction and poetry), we write for truth; we edit for love.
The good news—which is also the Good News—is that 2012 begins with forgiveness. My friend has forgiven me. And, as I’m reminded by 1 John 1.9, so has God, for if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Go, and sin no more. Go, and sit at thy desk, ready at the cursor. Name not, write true.
So, what about you? Do you have writerly (and perhaps ethical) lessons to share?
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