on truth

I’ve been wrestling with the same essay for about five years now. It’s a chapter of the travel memoir I wrote about living in Korea, which became my MFA thesis. The chapter always stood alone better than some of the others, and for that reason it’s the one section of the book that I’ve sent out to literary magazines. It was a finalist in a contest I entered a few years ago, and that little bit of a confidence boost has left me reluctant to let the piece die despite a number of rejections since then. I know that there’s something to the essay, but in the past year or so I’ve realized some tweaks were needed. In the years since I first wrote the piece the writing has become stale to me; some days I just assumed I’d looked at it too many times, but on others, I saw that the writing could be better. Because I looked at the piece so, so many times, I have had a hard time making myself work to improve it in order to send it out again. I have been easily frustrated by it. I’ve been bored by it.

Since the beginning of this year though, I’ve been trying. Really hard. I’ve printed the essay out and ripped through it with a red pen several times. It was longer than 5,000 words, which is the prose cutoff for some lit mags, and I managed to shave more than 1,000 words off of it — which to my surprise, improved it. I tightened some sentences, and eliminated words and phrases that I had realized didn’t add anything. Still, something wasn’t right. I got frustrated again. I wondered if I should give up on the essay altogether.

In my previous post, one of my suggestions for getting unstuck when mired in a writing project was to “get at the truth.” I’m not talking about fact vs. fiction when I use the word truth; at least not exactly. In my previous post I think I referred to what I’m talking about here as “the emotional core” of a piece of writing. It is responsible for an element of believability; it is hard to quantify or describe. But as a reader, you know it when you come across it. It’s that something that pulls you into a piece of writing.

I realize I’m being a bit vague. But a reader knows when a writer is being emotionally (and even factually) dishonest. And, a writer knows, too. She might not know how to fix it, or what the truth is, but she knows when it’s missing. Recently I had this sort of epiphany about my Korea essay. I had known for a long time that the second paragraph – a sort of nut graph for you journalists out there, which explained the who, what, where and why of the piece — needed re-writing. I was really uncomfortable with that paragraph.

Here’s what it used to say:

We had chosen, rather impulsively, to do a year-long stint teaching English in South Korea. Neither of us knew much about Korea, and neither of us spoke Korean. Everything — buying groceries, riding the bus, maintaining our relationship — felt harder than it was supposed to. We got lost a lot, and not just in the physical sense.

Here’s what it says now:

B. was my college boyfriend, a man I was once so close to I could read his mood by the slightest of expressions, whose voice soothed me when I was upset, and whose understated humor was full of irony and occasionally inappropriate material. I haven’t spoken to him in a decade or so; it’s been longer since I’ve seen his face. But we went to Korea together for a year, some fifteen years ago. We taught English at the same private language school in a new suburb of Seoul, and shared one room in the home of a newly wealthy Korean family of four. These were not ideal conditions for building a relationship. These were not ideal conditions.

Still, we blundered on, through cultural missteps, teaching inexperience, relationship bumps, illiteracy in a new language. We were in our early 20s, and teaching abroad seemed like a good idea, an adventure that would allow us to save some money. We did not foresee how difficult our lives would be in Korea. We were unprepared. And yet, whether because of our youth or relative privilege, we believed in our superiority as travelers. We saw ourselves as hearty survivors. In fact our approach to living abroad bordered on the misanthropic. Our first months in Korea were marked by a pervasive wariness: B. and I avoided and dodged, feared and sidestepped.

Obviously the second version of this graph is much longer and has more information in it. But that’s not what makes me feel better about it (although that was needed). What bothered me so much about the first version of the paragraph, and indeed, with much of the book, was that I attempted to gloss over one of the major relationships that defined the narrative. I took to summing it up, as in “We got lost a lot, and not just in the physical sense.” What does that even mean? It says little, and conveys almost no emotion. This is what I meant when I called my book “hollow” and “flat” in my previous post.

It’s easy to see why I might avoid the topic: I’m happily married to someone else now, and writing in such detail about someone I had once lived with made me feel a bit like I was cheating. But the narrative needs clarity on the relationship, otherwise readers are left with a hollow shell of a character, and a relationship that feels outlined rather than fully fleshed out. There’s nothing factually inaccurate about the first version of the paragraph. The second version just offers a little bit more of the emotional truth.


11 thoughts on “on truth

  1. I am more drawn into the second paragraph(s). The first paragraph really does tell the “who/what/where”- but in a sort of general way. Forgive this intrusion of modern social networking into my metaphor, but it feels like what I could gleam from the info on a friend’s facebook profile. It gives sort of expected information about living abroad when you don’t speak the language.

    The revised version is more vulnerable, it’s what I sometimes WISH I could find inside the superficial facebook profile. And it is, of course, what makes literature so much better than the surfacy day-to-day interactions we have with people. And it makes me think of my college boyfriend I traveled with and it stings a little, the way your description reminds me of that feeling of dodging, of avoiding.

    I think it’s a great revision.

    • Thanks! That’s actually funny, about the Facebook status updates. Maybe a 21st century writing rule: If it sounds like it could be a Facebook status update, rewrite it and add more depth. :)

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    I was reminded of your lovely memoir (we were in workshop together at Emerson) because I have a friend who is about to go to Korea to teach English. I esp remember the funny scenes in which you used advice/etiquette columns in your teaching. Just wanted to send along some encouragement as you continue to revise–I’m still working on my memoir project too–they can only get better, right??

    • Hey Andrea! Thanks for stopping by, and for the encouragement. It’s been a long time since we were workshopping our memoirs, but I think time is the best editor. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself! Hope all is well with you!

  3. Great post. I love the revision, though, with it now in the piece, don’t see anything wrong with the first graf being used–I kinda like the getting lost in more ways than one–except for the length issue. Your key point, anyway, is important: creative nonfiction, or at least memoir, is very different from journalism in that the writer must be a character so that we can identify with her and like, dislike her–whatever–but understand her, so that we can experience with her instead of just being fed summary.

    This is the exact issue I am struggling with in my own memoir–after 4.5 years! And it makes me feel a tiny bit better to think it is a common issue, that it’s not just me who was too blind to see. I wonder if we journalists or ex-journalists have a harder time seeing this? I hope not! But I wonder–newspaper journalism, at least, teaches the writer to scrub himself from his prose and become the disembodied Voice of Mr. Expert. Except about himself. By becoming a character, he restores narrative and reveals himself and his experience much more complexly and honestly and interestingly.

    On the matter of Truth, I might call it honesty, but it does ultimately come down to being truthful. Not in the micro way reportage is “true” because of superficial facts (even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro sense of ethical writing, in which the “only” (ha!) standard is to be ever more human.

    Sorry to go on–I just happen to be drafting a blog post today on the issue of honesty in memoir. And my position has really changed, having obsessed on the matter; as I read the amazing Name All the Animals by Alison Smith I shifted from being a strict constructionist about conveying only what can be literally remembered. But my explanation will have to await this future blog post.

    • Oh, I’m very intrigued by your future post! You’re right, honesty is a better word, I think, except it doesn’t totally come down to honesty — if you’re too honest, it could get in the way of the story, perhaps. I don’t know where I picked up the phrase “emotional truth” but it’s one I’ve heard used before in this context.
      I do suspect it’s harder for journalists. I was fresh out of working at a newspaper when I went into my MFA program. I really had issues with others in my class who didn’t see problems in playing with facts in their nonfiction writing. I guess I was pretty strict about only including what I could remember, which is one reason why my portrayal of B. is so vague in the book. I think there are ways to be truthful but get beyond the facts you remember to provide a little more context/texture in a piece of memoir. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Great post too! Of course, the second paragraph is much richer than the first. The thing that slightly disturbed me imho is that you mix the difficulty of finding yourself in a foreign country with the inner difficulty of being a young couple. Of course, you had to face both at the same time, but I do feel you can enrich the second paragraph even more on this aspect.

    • That’s an interesting point. In this case, the relationship and the difficulties in the foreign country were intertwined, but I had not considered that in quite the way you phrased it here. Thanks for your comment!

      • I am reading The Men in My Country by Marilyn Abildskov, about the two years she spent teaching school and businessmen in Japan, and recommend you look at it if you haven’t, to see how she handled some of these issues.

  5. Also: I stumbled across reviews for “If You Follow Me” by Malena Watrous. It’s about a young American woman who goes to teach for a year in rural Japan and looks interesting.

    The Abildskov is also interesting because she was a journalist, a feature writer, for five years and mentions it in her book.

    • Thanks so much for these book suggestions! Malena Watrous is a local author whose book has gotten a lot of press here. I have it on my list. (Her successful agent query was one I linked to in my March links post above.) The Abildskov book I had not heard of, but it sounds interesting! I clearly have some reading to do!

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