Truth and Fiction
I guest taught a class earlier this week, one that the prof had titled “knowing the world through narrative.” I had mentioned in a conversation about my admin job that one of the things I miss about teaching is the opportunity to talk about books and the craft of writing and reading them on a regular basis. So there I was on Thursday, parachuted into a class of 100 students, with a plan to march them through literary analysis. I chose a few pages from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are you my mother?, which is a memoir (though she terms it a comic drama) weaving psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf, and Bechdel’s relationship with her mom into a pretty interesting text.
What I initially found so compelling about Bechdel’s book was her response to her mom at a point when her mom is asserting that there is no room for the individual, the personal, the specific in good literature. Bechdel says: but don’t you think that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life that you can transcend your individual self? I thought that was spot on and beautifully put. Here, Bechdel shows you how hard it is to write about yourself and what you can hope to gain by it. It makes her project sound like self-ethnography, which fit in with what this class I was working with has been up to this semester.
The other notion I wanted to cover with the students, who had just been working with data collection and other quantifiable source material, was the notion of Truth vs. Facts. We can, if we choose, collect facts about a work of writing and these facts can bring us to a certain understanding of the work and influence our relationship to it. But good fiction is greater than the sum of its parts and, as Stephen King, Tennessee Williams and a hundred other writers have said–good fiction is the truth inside the lies they write. I wanted these students, most of whom would have had high school English classes that left them more or less cold and uninspired, to take the notion of reading literature seriously. So we talked a bit a about metaphor and symbolism (the apple I’m eating at lunchtime = the apple in Eden, for example) and get back to Bechdel and her notion of writing minutely and rigorously about her life as something that could become transcendent.
I thought it was awesome. And so good to talk about again. Ad as I write about it two days later, I may come to the conclusion that I am a better lecturer than I am a writer. My riff on my apple and Eve’s apple was pretty nice, I thought, and impossible to recapture now.
The other great thing about working with a graphic novel for this was the ability of that medium to visually display the layers of a text. Word bubbles, blocked off text that provides context/narration, and images of passages from other books (Woolf, Winnicot) that show the intertextual material Bechdel is working with. And then the images of the characters themselves. Are they happy, sad, regretful, confused? No adjectives needed–just those pictures. How challenging that work must be–to convey all of that with so little, really.