Friday, August 06, 2004

Truthfulness

I just saw this interesting comment by the writer Paula Fox. (A fullish excerpt from the interview can be found here; link via www.tinglealley.com). Here's what Fox says: "At some point I began to value 'truth,' that elusive thing, more as I grew older--not only story. I recall lying on a bed, looking at a manuscript on the floor as I reached to turn pages, and thinking to myself, I must mean everything I say, every word, and feeling it as a profound moment in my writing life."

I particularly feel this in my academic writing, though of course it's an issue in fiction as well. I don't mean just being accurate in claims about the past, though that's important too. (When I say that Noah Webster ran hot-and-cold on spelling reform, for instance--this is what I'm working on today--is that really fair, and do I really know enough to say it? The answer is yes....) I mean being, oh, I don't know how to put it, well, TRUTHFUL in a sense closer to "authentic" than to "accurate." And while I was in graduate school, I found my own personal metaphor for this. It sounds crazy, but I really did internalize the voice of one of my dissertation advisors, a genius I will refer to here just as DB. DB has a strong ethical commitment to the study of literature and he is especially interested in a group of writers defined by their interest in ethics: say, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth, Frost, Wallace Stevens, that kind of thing. And when I wrote anything, I would think to myself as I struggled to get the right phrasing, "Is this something I could say to DB without blushing? Or do I cringe a little at the thought of him reading it and detecting some kind of intellectual dishonesty--some urge to be fashionable or politically correct or just glib about something that deserves deeper probing?" And if I cringed, I worked the sentence over until it was something that wouldn't provoke the (always kind, but nonetheless to be avoided at all costs!) skepticism of DB, who had become something like the "man in the breast" (comical phrasing, but interesting idea) you find in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. I found this liberating rather than oppressive. Because it's worth working hard to get things right. In fiction, I'd phrase it more as a question of voice--I find it harder there, because I end up paring things down to the bone in a struggle to eliminate coyness, bad faith, etc.--all the things that happen when you try and find the right place to speak from. My first novel was in the end written in two different first-person voices, because I couldn't find a third-person voice I could live with. The novel I've just written is written in the third person, but it's very close to the main character's own voice.

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