amanda rowe

October 23, 2008, 4:35 pm
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I am reading a so-so memoir by Anne Lamott that is punctuated by flashes of brilliance, mostly in the form of quotes and paraphrases of other writers. One of these captured my attention the other day, and has been rolling around in my head ever since:

“It’s like Czeslaw Milosz said when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature: ‘In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.'” (Operating Instructions, p. 47)

Ironically, my chief complaint with Lamott’s book is that it rings false. Despite her endless self-deprecation and flaunting of her deepest, darkest secrets, it feels as though I am reading a novel in which she has crafted a version of herself as the main character. The main character is interesting, and often shocking in her irreverence, but ultimately does not ring true.

But Lamott’s book is a memoir, and I’ve long believed that nonfiction is often much farther from the truth than fiction. I recently read Anna Karenina, which is probably the truest book I have ever read, in the sense that at every turn something inside of me shouted an overjoyed, “Yes! That is exactly the way things are!” John Gardner has said that much of our delight in truly good writing is this discovery of truth.

On the other hand, I also recently read The Poisonwood Bible, and was deeply disappointed because for reasons intangible, the book seemed false. The characters seemed more like vehicles for the author’s political and religious allegory than like real people. Their behavior was unbelievable, and though the action of the novel was fascinating, it did not resonate on the deep level that Anna Karenina did. It was not true, and therefore, in my opinion, not truly art.

How does all this relate? The Milosz quote has caused me to reflect on my own writing. I’ve experienced a subtle dissatisfaction with many of the posts on this blog, one that does not dissipate when I mentally correct for poor wording or awkward construction. I’ve realized that much of what I have written is not true. Like Lamott, I have not written my actual thoughts, but those of a character I created, loosely based on myself. Much of what this character thinks approaches the precipice of truth but stops at the brink, hesitates, and takes a long backward glance at the comfortable expanse of formulaic thinking behind her.

At times, I see myself as an artistic person (at other times, I scoff at that thought and change another diaper). I believe as an artist, I ought not to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence but to fire shots of truth. I’m not writing under a totalitarian state as Milosz was, but I do want to produce something that reveals a truth that transcends what is considered politically, artistically, or intellectually interesting at the time. I have no idea how to do that.