Regis Mile High MFA has asked me to pull together a large lecture hall seminar for our next residency on the ethics of creative nonfiction. I’m calling it, “ truth, TRUTH, my story, your story: The Ethics of (Creative) (Non) fiction.” As I scroll through the famous infamies of creative “non-truths” in the past decades—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea to name the most web-notorious—I realize that my students don’t worry so much over the truthfulness of their stories as they do over their own capacities to hurt (or enrage) those close to them– good, bad, and/or ugly–who appear in the often painful memories these students find themselves compelled to write.
As a poet, I thought nothing of truth or ethics. The poet Richard Hugo declared what we poets already knew: “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” But then I wrote my first creative nonfiction book, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, about a subject I had never broached with my family since the long decades past when my mother and father took me to testify in court against the stranger who assaulted me by the side of a graveyard. Each time afterward, they would stop off at the local ice cream parlor with me, in hopes, I think now, of returning me to the normalcy of childhood through a chocolate chip sundae, even after that last day in court when the judge read the verdict and the mother of the rapist half-collapsed at the end of the long court bench within reach of me, weeping to her son, “You said you didn’t do it,” as the police led her nineteen-year-old, convicted and sentenced, down the aisle between us.
This week, Michael Chabon’s essay in The New Yorker, “ The Final Frontier,” offers a beautiful lesson on how one narrator, moved beyond malice or bitterness to the “implacable logic of mercy,” can meditate, without indictment, on the father who abandoned him forty-four years ago. His father near death, Chabon sits bedside in the ICU, working on a script for “Star Trek: Picard.” His meditation moves between the Star Trek script he is writing, the imaginary conversation he is having with his father over the script, and the present moments of his father dying. It is in that weaving and Chabon’s careful balancing of language that Chabon teaches us how we can work with the fraught material we are given. Star Trek, especially those episodes with Mr. Spock, that Chabon and his father knew in detail, are the genesis for a metaphor that allows Chabon to both embrace and distance himself from a relationship so complex that Chabon can quietly call his father “an acquaintance of fifty-five years,” without alarming his readers. Halfway through Chabon’s recitation on Spock and Star Trek, Chabon says to his father, whom he will shortly try to “mind-meld” with, “I love Mr. Spock because he reminds me of you.”
That their relationship was fraught is without doubt, but what could so easily be the accusations of a son against a father he has been grieving the loss of since he was a twelve year old boy is filtered by Chabon through benevolent truisms on human frailty, as if said by some all-seeing sage, or fellow Vulcan, above the earthly fray: “the silence that prevailed between fathers and sons, as profound and mysterious as the silence of elevators” and “the father I had loved so imperfectly, and by whom I had been so imperfectly loved.” Chabon ends his essay in that schism of imperfect love: an abandoned child’s long-lived yearning for a father and that same child’s long wounding, still “trapped in the broken elevator of insomnia.”
Just as my students fear will happen to them, as the publishing date drew near for Phantom Canyon, I fretted over telling my mother what the book was about—she had yet to ask me. Finally, on a walk, I told her with as few words as I could, giving her a preview copy, what I should have given her sooner, I think now, to read. I waited, imagining my mother bent over her magnifying glass reading my words, her not knowing the story of the long aftermath that had silenced me for too long. I wrote of the morning when she asked me why I was no longer her “sunshine,” and how I was so stunned from what she did not know that I could not speak. I wrote of the evening when she asked my father, what I overheard from outside the kitchen window where I had been crying, when I would finally “get over it.” I wrote of other things, too. Words true. She called and I waited, a poet too painfully aware by then of creative nonfiction’s abysses, but not yet fully aware of the grace of mind-melds and faraway galaxies.
“Kathy,” my mother said, “the book is beautiful, even the hard parts” –our conversation then, I am still thankful, not imagined, but real.