Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ears on the Table

*This is a story about this.*

When I was in writing school in Iowa, during my second semester I took a workshop led by John D'Agata. He was and is the type person who intimidates me into becoming a mumbling, gaze-averting dullard, which is usually how you can tell that I think someone is pretty brilliant.

On the first day of the class he sent us home with a packet of inspiring nonfiction to read, some of it essay, some of it poetry, and I was particularly struck by one poem called The Colonel by Carolyn Forché. Please click on that link and read the whole thing right now. Then come back. It's short. I'll wait.

So, as you know from your reading, it begins with the line "What you have heard is true." And goes on to describe this dinner party at a colonel's house in El Salvador in 1978. You remember El Salvador in 1978? Messy times. During the dinner party, you may recall, the colonel dumps a grocery sack full of human ears onto the table, and we are left with this:
        Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught 
        this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 

What an incredible image, right? And what a totally horrific yet believable thing to be happening in El Salvador in 1978.

Anyway, during the next class meeting we discussed the packet, and then sort of got to talking about the idea of "truth in essay" (which, if you are attending school for an MFA in nonfiction, is inevitable.)

John (can I call him John?) began talking about the poem and we all sighed about how wonderful it was and how that image was so incredible etc etc. Then he said, "would it affect you in the same way if it wasn't actually true?" He then went on to mention casually, but with the subtly provoking tone of someone who is making a grand point, that the event in question was not in fact true, even though Carolyn Forché went on record saying that it had literally happened.

Now. This is where I should have followed my usual instinct to clam up and just listen to the wise professor. The presentation of this scenario (both the inclusion of the lovely, symbolic poem in a packet of ostensible nonfiction and the (shocking!) revelation of its fabrication) was so obvious that I should have seen it coming. I had been in a nonfiction writing program for a whole semester at that point. I had had the Truth discussion a dozen times already.

But I was feeling strangely outgoing that evening, brazen, you might say, and so instead of merely accepting the lesson as it was being presented, I said something eloquent and thoughtful like, "Nuh UH!!"

My classmates swiveled their heads to look at me.

John smiled.

"You have a problem with it being fabricated, Annie? Why don't you tell us why..."


I mumbled, I rambled, I averted his gaze. I said things that managed to plunge me toward the bottom ranks of the classroom intelligence contest (which is usually something I like to happen organically over a few class meetings.)

It was all pretty bad.

Now, I understood on some level that someone had to take the fall, that in order for the important point to be made there needed to be a student who would wave the TRUTH flag all over the classroom, and that only then could there be a meaningful and complex discussion about art, and we could all come to the rightful conclusion that essay need not be one hundred percent accurate. That it was art, and not, heaven forbid, journalism.

But what killed me then and continues to even now, four years later, is that that student shouldn't have been me. I am not the kid who believes factual accuracy is thing one in our genre. On the contrary. I believe in art. I believe in composite characters and sentence rhythms and noteless impressions and playing fast and loose with childhood reminiscence. In fact I had more than once been on the other side of this argument with some of the very classmates who were now sitting in this classroom, looking at me with this mixture of pity and relief, and who remained silent as John listed all the thoughtful, eloquent reasons why I was wrong.

The class had its meaningful discussion in the end, and all agreed that Art was the thing. And to their credit, no one treated me like a dullard after all, though the experience (and the suspicion that John D'Agata thinks I'm a philistine) has stayed with me. It's become one of those moments that I draw and redraw in my head. Sometimes I'll stand lathering my hair in the shower or something, and I'll recall the conversation, and my limp answers to John's questions, and suddenly the perfect response will come to me, and I'll become so intoxicated by what I should have said, that for a moment, it's as if I have traveled back through time and actually defended myself. Yes! My reading was affected, momentarily, when he revealed that the event wasn't true. I'm human, after all. But! It never diminished the thrill of that poem, the art of it, etc etc etc oh for chrissake, John will you please just think I'm smart??


Anyway, ALL OF THIS is merely to mention that this delightful exchange came out in Harper's the other day and it tickled me pink. John D'Agata is my hero. Even if he thinks I'm a fool.

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