John Sibley Williams serves as editor of the Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. He is the author of four poetry collections, including As One Fire Consumes Another, which won the Orison Poetry Prize; Disinheritance; and Controlled Hallucinations. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He is the winner of the 2019 Backwaters Press Prize in Poetry, Skin Memory (November 2019).
Don’t Assume It’s All True: Writing Honestly About Myself by Fictionalizing the Details
After an off-site reading at AWP a few weeks ago, a young man who had been circling then retreating from the readers for some time finally approached me, leaned in close as if about to share a secret, and quietly said “I lost my brother too. Afghanistan did something to him; he was never the same. He committed suicide last year.” He held up a copy of my book and continued “so I get how you’re feeling. Those poems hit me hard.” I wasn’t sure how to reply. Why? Because the traumatized brother who’d lost his way upon returning from combat that I reference throughout the book isn’t a flesh-and-blood human being. I’m an only child. I invented a brother to more intimately explore the themes of grief, guilt, and socio-political culpability. For those themes to really hurt, that horror needed to happen to someone. Someone I loved. Someone I grew up with. Someone who once breathed the same air this young man and I were breathing. Otherwise, at best, the poems would be cold, distant. At worse, they’d lean toward didacticism. Should I have told him all this? I still don’t know. We embraced, briefly, like comrades, and parted knowing we had shared something significant.
And such experiences happen frequently. Be it the abusive father figure I’ve painted in many poems to provide an intimate context for masculine toxicity or the various locations I place my poems in, many of which I’ve never visited, readers have responded on a personal level to the details I fabricated. A bond has formed between us based not on shared experiences exactly but on a shared vision of the world, a shared struggle and understanding, catharsis.
Those tender moments of collective empathy, of raw humanity, of words resonating beyond the page to speak directly to a stranger’s life, is part of why I write. I’m sure it’s why we all write. But sometimes being faithful to facts doesn’t produce the right effect. Sometimes, to write truthfully, we need to make things up.
For example, in “It Was a Golden Age of Monsters”, the narrator describes a snowy drive with his father to visit his dying mother in a hospital. As he is only a child, the agonizing situation translates in his mind to the old historical books of the American West he loves. Spanning out before the car, he sees unfinished rail tracks, speared bison, logged trees. He’s recontextualizing his pain, placing it in another era, distancing himself from it as best he can. And it’s true: we all draw such extraordinary connections to make sense of our grief. To explore this truth, I chose to construct a situation. I created two characters, gave one a half-understood passion for history, and threw them together during a storm meant to mirror the tumult in their hearts. How much of this is factually accurate? Only the emotions. On the surface, my mother’s passing barely resembled what happens in the poem. She passed in her bed, not a hospital. I didn’t have to drive to visit her. No storm. No snow. And I was no longer a child when it happened. But those invented details were necessary to paint the scene. They better represent my feelings than the cold, hard, accurate facts would have. The metaphors within the poem hurt me in just the right way. They are as real as reality. In a way, they are more real than my memories.
Even if the poet provides ample contextual clues, meaning and resonance are inherently subjective. What a certain experience meant to me likely won’t translate to a reader if I exclusively state facts. So I, and most poets, embellish. We imagine family members. If I need an older sibling to give the literary me someone to bond with, struggle against, learn terrible lessons from, and eventually grieve, then I give myself a brother. His character works as a mirror and contrasting force. He allows me to explore what I could have become, as well as my feelings about that “boys will be boys” mentality that continues to tarnish our culture. To further examine this theme, sometimes a harsh, overly religious, disciplinarian father is required to tell my story. It doesn’t matter if he is my father. He becomes my father. The archetype becomes real. I can smell him on me, see him in the mirror. I hate him. I love him so much.
Most embellishments, however, involve small factual tweaks.
As a teen, I once carved my initials into an old oak tree with a kitchen knife. But as the poem I was writing involved ghosts, I made it a white birch. That pale, delicate, flaky bark speaks more to the poem’s themes. It provides a better visual. And I changed the kitchen knife to a jackknife, which implies a suddenness, a greater inclination to violence.
Or I’ll transplant a certain experience into a different location. My extended series of short poems, “Dear Nowhere”, include a few landscapes my feet have never touched. Why? Because the metaphor of a desert or the roiling waves of the Pacific resonate with the desired emotional impact. I chose “Duluth, Minnesota” as the setting of one of these poems simply because it’s separated by a lake from Canada. To look across a body of water and know another country, with all its strange yet familiar promise, is staring back is a powerful image.
I still have no idea how I’m meant to respond when a reader, a new friend, tells me how a certain embellished element of a poem speaks to them. Poetry is such an enigmatic amalgamation of fiction and nonfiction. Did it happen to me? Yes and no. Did it hurt me to write it the same way it hurt to read it? Absolutely. Let’s just embrace, briefly, like comrades, and part knowing we have shared something significant.