The Case of the “Dead” Brother

Posted by on Aug 22, 2012 | 7 comments

Once I heard a poet read a poem about his brother who had died a tragic death. The audience was deeply moved. Afterward, some people came up and asked him more about his brother. “I don’t have a brother,” he said, somewhat airily. “Do you assume my poem is about some factual truth?” I was offended. Others were, too. WHY we were is the interesting question.

When what we write appears to be truth, is it okay to lie? This is an issue that merits some looking into. And has been—most recently for me at a panel discussion by Rainier Writing Workshop faculty members Sherry Simpson, Mary Clearman Blew, Dinah Lenney, and Scott Nadelson, on “Why Genre Matters.” I didn’t have a chance to say anything in the open discussion, so I’ll take a crack at it now. If you want more background and pertinent references, you should read Dinah Lenney’s great blog at

The discussion, nay, the vehement arguments, about where written “truth” may give way to fiction certainly didn’t begin with what we call “creative nonfiction.” The truth is “messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd,” wrote Janet Malcolm in The Crime of Sheila McGough, later comparing accurate narratives to a shapeless housecoat. “The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.”

Journalist John D’Agata obviously agreed, inventing a category he calls “essayist” rather than journalist, to describe his unfortunate blend of fact and fiction. And of course James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces “fooled” Oprah and lured over 3.5 million readers.

I first think of Hawthorne’s Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, where he compares the “romance” (writing that may depict events that can’t actually happen) to the “novel” (writing that must remain true to what could happen).” Here’s Hawthorne:

WHEN A WRITER calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former–while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart–has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

Hawthorne’s thinking seems to underlie the current argument for messing with the truth: A nonfiction piece claims to have actually happened. Fiction can go anywhere. But both might—and sometimes do—claim the right of a “romance” –to go anywhere, based on the “truth of the human heart” rule.

My thoughts. Hang with me here. I’m going somewhere with this:

1. Humans began to make miraculous intellectual progress at the beginning of The Enlightenment. What happened was that we began to want to verify facts. The scientific method was born. For something to be “true,” it must be subjected to a test: it must hold true through trial after trial under equal conditions. It must be verifiable. Truth is true under all conditions, or it is not true. What we got from this, as a human race, is what I will call purchase. We got a foothold, someplace to stand so that we could see what the next level of thinking might be.

2. The intellect is important not only for our intellectual life, but for our spiritual life. We have used it to build scaffolding which has enabled us to see and understand subtle spiritual truths.

3. Caveat: There is no such thing as truth and when we look closely, we know it. All is a swirling mass. All is mystery. We invent what we call truth as a way to live within the swirling mass. And sure enough, “truth” does allow us to do that.

4.I would like that poem to have been about a real brother. I would like when someone tells me something in a poem or an essay that claims to be fact, that it is fact. If I can trust that, a barrier is removed between me and the voice of the poem. I feel the poem on a more human level. It was you. It is your words.

5. I see something of the “language” poets’ point of view in that dead-brother-poet’s response. Language poets ask me to be entranced, arrested, amused, intellectually stimulated, almost exclusively by the play of words on the page. That poet who wrote about his “brother” had us feeling sad, touched by his death. But the poem turned out to be only the poet’s game. If the poem had been ABOUT how one invents a brother, and why, and what that means to the speaker, that would be another thing.

6. Tell me the truth or the world will fall apart. Tell me what you say is a story, or frame it so that I know it’s a story, and I’ll willingly suspend my disbelief. I’ll love doing that, and may be changed by it as much as if it were your true story. Deceive me and you’ve violated the basic human contract: we’ll find ourselves living in the hell fires of, for example, this particular political season.




  1. Let’s just say I agree with the responsibility of how writers navigate their words on the page: is it fiction or non-fiction?. . .how deceiving the reader violates “the basic human contract.” And as for “this particular political season. . .”

    • Well there may be more to it than I was thinking of when I wrote this. I’ll take this up later. Thanks for your input here, Ann. By the way, I sent the spirit-doll to my granddaughter, with your poem. Thank you.

  2. Dear Fleda,

    Point 6 is the one that is absolutely on the money for me. Of course all experience, even “true” experience, is edited by the experiencer. Facts are not. Play fast and loose with the facts as a means to personal aggrandizement and you insult all t6hose who have lived the awful factuality of something like a family death. If “I was the man, I suffered, I was there,” then by God I had BETTER have been there!

    • Yes. This is what was resonating with me when I wrote this, but then Anne-Marie has a point. You and I are talking more about poetry. How do we look at poetry differently? Not sure, but we do. Was it the Romantics that took us down this track, or what? I need to think about this some more. I’ll write again about it.

  3. I do agree with the need for truth, especially in this culture, and for deep consideration of how truth is presented, despite its mystery. But I am wondering, you know, just curious, as to why a poem is so-often assumed “true” any more than, for instance, a short story? I’m probably shy on my literary history here (or misunderstanding the argument–more likely), but has poetry always been a “truth-telling” genre? How did it come down on the “nonfiction” side of things? Or is it simply assumed that the speaker of the poem is the poet speaking of her own experience? Or did the confessional poets lead us to this? Of course, truth be told, my questions spring in part from my self-consciousness about own collection, “Un-coded Woman.” I recently discovered some people have read it as a completely autobiographical poem series. Yikes! The speaker shares a few experiences and memories with me, but she’s not me. (I even gave her a different name.) I hope the book tells a truth, but it is not mine. So. I lied? But. But.

    • Yes, this is the REAL issue. I have thought about that since and realize THIS is what needs addressing. The other is pretty easy to see. The value I guess of a blog is that we can see ourselves thinking and see where we’re going off course. I’ll write about this next. I’ll write because I don’t know WHAT the answer is.

  4. I’m right there with Anne-Marie wondering about truth in poetry, the speaker vs. the poet. I’ve been working on a series of poems through the persona of the Mail Order Bride. I have to keep telling people they’re not about me or my life…. not quite (definitely not the mail order part!!)… but yes, they speak to experiences I have had (more through serious illness than in marriage) of utter dependence, bewildering new landscapes, and starting over. So, no, I’m not that Bride, but I’m IN that bride. No, the poems aren’t the historical truth, but they are a truth of my life. The same is true for others of my poems — I’m not the speaker exactly, but the speaker’s truth gets to a truth of my life, or to something I feel needs examining from my life. I’ll be staying tuned to this discussion!

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