Friday 15 June 2012

HIstory Memory and Truth, writing and re-writing the past.

Several things have made me ponder recently. It happens. I do try to avoid it as I prefer to open myself to Imbas and inspiration before the clumsy affectation of intellect intrudes itself; the conscious creative mind should polish and refine not dictate. But occasionally a lot of thoughts accumulate around a given aspect of writing and poetry and I need to give them free rein. This is one of those times.

There's a tendency to dismiss Firenne, Truths, in modern life. In writing it has become more advantageous to be glib and clever than to have either heart or truth at the heart of one's writing. Each year, prior to having my son, I read the shortlist for the Booker. I lost count of the number of times I closed a book at its final page and thought....meh. Well written but utterly pointless. Nothing new said, nothing original posited, only style. (One reason I was so delighted Wolfe Hall won was that for any flaw it boasted, it more than made it up to the reader with heart and originality.)  
One advantage among many of writing on the Fringe, and one of the joys of being involved in publishing independent poets like Inga Brigitta or Maureen Aisling Duffy-Boose * is that one gets to read or edit honest, heartfelt writing, with real and identifiably genuine voices. I also like to read blogs and news articles; opinion pieces and polemic. I like to read truth, even if it's just that one person's truth, even if I disagree with it. I hate inherited opinion, unthinking comments, glibness. I hate the clich├ęs of apocryphal writing - stories that are urban legends retold as one's own experience.

The question of what is truth arises when one person's version rubs off an other's. It's easy to say that all truths are equal or that there are many truths - until someone lies. Then one begins to think in terms of absolute truths. If I write a version of my past that lies, is it mine to reinvent or do the other players have the right to challenge it? If I recreate myself, and invent my emotions, at what point does my illusion impinge on your reality?

I usually accord a wide latitude to self invention. I mistrust people who never learn, never change and grow and changing often leaves a person far from their origins. I don't begrudge anyone the right to smooth the edges of their life. But there's a point at which lie and truth simply can't coexist. The same is true creatively - without some truth, and some purpose to your truth, you are left with glibness and gloss.
There is no way in my experience to be an honest writer, or artist, without knowing oneself. Acknowledging our flaws, our darkness...more, valuing these things in ourselves...lifts us from scribblers to poets. Our past is as important as our present. We cannot divorce ourselves from the reality of our past without placing 0ur future in danger.
Memory is notoriously unreliable. We all know the example of eye witnesses at an accident who give conflicting accounts of the event. Without rooting ourselves in community, without those old friends and family whose accounts of us help keep us honest, who are guardians of our memories of self, we are rarely true to our pasts.

In terms of poetry, and writing, nostalgia is both a curse and a trap. Equally tempting is the desire to dramatise ourselves, attribute to ourselves wisdom in retrospect, that belies our essential self in that moment and overlies it with some knowing interpreter who refuses to let the older you talk. Even when that's the effect you wish to produce, the secret is to let the original speak and then overlay it with the present.

When you begin to write about shared history, your memories of family, place, society, childhood, youth, it becomes more and more important to respect truth. While you can lie to yourself, lying about others is intellectually dishonest. If you try to present some aspect of truth, warts and all, against your own self if necessary, your audience feels the honesty in all characters. If you try to weight the truth only on your side, the fake peeks through. It's like an acquired accent; you might fool the casual listener for a few sentences but it falters over longer periods and betrays your roots mercilessly.

If you write in truth, even those whose memories differ from yours will find some common ground. We can all, as eye witnesses agree that the crash happened, if not what the driver looked like.

* Maureen Aisling Duffy-Boose's first collection "Songs of My Heart" will be published later this year by PPP Publishing



Chris Montheith said...

A very interesting article; perhaps over-weighted somewhat on the role played in truth discernment and its subsequent use in artistic endeavours when rooted in what you describe as the early memories/shared histories that keeps a writer honest. It is, as someone wiser once said, difficult enough to know oneself, never mind another human being as fully as your article implies in order for Firenne to be shared and recognisable. What is Truth? and where the room for person A and B to own completely different versions of a perceived truth.What gives the reader to right to impune to the writer motivations that may not exist, and truths distorted by some kind of false view of themselves?

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

Dear Chris
many thanks for your comment, and apologies for the delay in moderating it - the google chrome dashboard for Blogger fought me every inch of the way!
Yes it is impossible to know oneself utterly. It is however possible, if hard, to be as honest with oneself as one can. This is not some isoalated act that an artist can trot out for the purpose of their art. This is an ongoing emotional and intellectual journey that requires commitment and discipline and which informs every part of one's life. Ideally. Obviously as flawed human beings we fail and fail regularly, but the effort and endeavour brings us back to ourselves, and our motives, and our desires, and our hopes and fears and bigotries and lies. That's what is meant by not merely embracing the existence of our dark selves but actually valuing the existence of our flaws. The endeavour to be honest with ourselves about both flaws and virtues is what brings honesty to our work.
What is Truth? (and to conflate two of your points how is Firenne recognisable~?) Well the Old Irish writings on Firenne beautifully express the need of humanity to recognise Firenne - it is the lifeforce that underpins everything. That which is not true, dies. Truth is of course subjective but there are facts. Not everything is opinion. As Tim Minchin says, try leaving your fourth floor apartment by your window instead of your door, if you doubt that fact exists :) Therefore in reality - well this physical reality at least! - there are things that can be called facts. Eg two adults dispute facts of their childhood. One incident is the day their dog was run over. The facts are, the dog was run over. The brother left the front door open. This is a fact. The sister maintains that the brother always hated the dog and deliberately left it open. The brother recounts how hurt he was that not only did he lose his pet but he was so unjustly accused. As observers we can see where the facts break down into subjective truth and yet we have to acknowledge that both conflicting truths contain truth in that, it is true that the sister feels this and it is equally true that the brother feels that.
In this vortex, in this conflict, we find creativity. We interpret the truth, we interpret the emotions, we try to translate one person's reality to the other.
This is a very long winded response to your questions :) thanks for indulging me!

Anonymous said...

Dear Geraldine
I was not expecting such a detailed reply. Fascinating and very true. Perhaps though even the facts themselves might be disputed. What then? to pick up your analogy: The door was open and the dog died. Siblings view the incident from different perspectives.The sibling who left the door open may indeed have hated the dog but is unable to admit to the fleeting moment of satistfaction when the dog was no more and hence retreats into anger and hurt. The more interesting perspective for a writer might be to delve into this aspect of Truth telling.Thanks for responding. Adn interesting web site,

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

Oh absolutely, there are layers of truth and perspective, but if it is the boy who is writing about the incident he should be honest with himself about that moment of fleeting satisfaction. If he writes only about the hurt and anger, he has shortchanged both himself and the reader, creatively. The adage, know yourself, still holds true. If the girl is writing, then she needs to be honest about the hurt and anger her brother feels, not just his hatred of the dog, and her resentment.
All these layers are fascinating and the proper concern of the writer. But one should not lose sight of the fact that there *is* truth and one is supposed to be in pursuit of it. And that there are lies. Say a third sibling denies the dog died, and instead insists they performed a life saving operation on the roadside and saved the dog. The other siblings can rightfully cry foul :)
Thanks again for your interest, I always welcome ideas and opinions :) regards

Lisa Neilson Browne said...

Excellent piece. I really enjoyed reading it and the discussion. Few authors take the time to engage with criticism or interested parties. I love your poetry and hope you bring out a collection soon?

Ego said...

Coming to this a little late...sorry...who is to say what version is true?
What I mean is, if it's sixty years later who is there to moderate between the siblings and say "The dog did die, its life was not saved."?
As I get older, and as I watch my mother and her sisters get older, this question is beginning to intrude. Time and again my mother says one thing and her sister says another. The issues aren't even important. But there is no independent arbiter.

There is no God figure who can reach down and say "Sister 2, you are wrong. Sister 1, you are right."
So they are left pointlessly arguing... and we who were not even there have no way to judge who is right.

A side issue, but one that's interested me lately.

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

Ego that is an excellent point; On one level regardless of age, the warring accounts of both siblings are of equal validity, until one of them tries to "author" the account. Then the responsibility of the writer to be honest, to offer both subjective and objective truth, comes into play.
When it comes to looking as an outsider at two warring accounts, and without any factual evidence to look to - when it becomes a straight choice between two unsupported accounts without as you say a "god figure" to adjudicate - you've entered a whole new realm of "memory and truth"
I suppose on a simple level it must come down at least partly to integrity - if your source was a document you would evaluate it's provenance and integrity. The same is true of a person. Who is most likely to be truthful? who is more objective? who has more to gain?
is your mother or aunt a fantasist, or a realist? does the event cast them or the other in an unflattering light?
and then there is that in between path, that liminal space between accounts. The truth is in the middle. Somewhere between two diametrically opposed versions there must be truth.
Fact can be elusive in personal recollection, without any conscious attempt to deceive. Or it can be obscured by conscious effort. Or it can be a habit to obscure. Some people grow into the habit of hiding even petty realities, it's a sort of twitch of the psyche that renders them unable to tell the straight objective facts.

And the question then arises, is it easier to evaluate one's own past and recollection or adjudicate anothers'?

sara curren said...

I love this thread!! this is such a great discussion, it's given me ideas for a piece. Ego - I have two aunts who quarrel all the time about past events. No one can convince them that not only is one of them wrong BOTH of them are. They are hilarious.
more seriously I am intrigued now by the idea of auto / bio integrity. I agree as a writer the ideal is to be an honest objective observer but what really interests me is writing a piece from the pov of an ambiguous voice, who may or may not be telling the truth!

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

I like that idea too Sara, poetry or prose?

C Montheith said...

No home Computer so missed the replies earlier. Ego- really like your point about independent arbitration. In most situations literary or actual we do not have access to a Truth and Moderation Forum. Ditto Geraldine's response and her comment about adjudicating one own's past or that of others- I suggest in terms of the creativity of the written word it depends on how willing the writer is to stand in the shoes of an alien character and explore that character in depth. In terms of reality if one stands in the shoes of the other person one has to accept that long held views of that person may be proven wrong/ or indeed confirmed by the experience of standing in their shoes and seeing things from their perspective.And this is a risk.What if one of the sibling protaganists in the story of the dog could produce written proof of their interpretation of events but choses not to do so becasue they are secure within their integrity? This would add an interesting demention to Sara's idea of an ambivalent voice who may or may not be telling the truth.

sara curren said...

I very much like that C Montheith - I wonder what motivation one could have to withhold information that would exonerate one? the ambivalence could extend to whether they were "secure within their integrity" or....had some other warped motive....

Geraldine, I hope to write a prose piece, I have explored these themes in poetry occasionally but somehow I think i need to flesh it out in prose.

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

Sara I look forward to reading it when you get round to it.
C Montheith, I love your comment about standing in the shoes of an alien character and exploring it in depth, and the risk - it is worth exploring!