Bargaining With the Truth

sea sisters by Amber Seegmiller

In the second semester of my first year as an MA Creative Writing student, I was tasked to write a paper that answered the question, “Why do you write?”

I had just finished a semester of comparative literature subjects, where our readings and reports made us think about what had been done within the field of Philippine literature. A few weeks after letting all that information and analysis sink in, I was thrown a question I hadn’t really thought about. At the time, writing was a job, a dream, a career. But in graduate school, we are taught to go beyond that act and explore why we are writing in the first place.

This was my first lesson into better understanding and exploring the genre I wanted to write in: creative nonfiction. Theodore A. Rees Cheney describes creative “nonfiction requiring the skill of the storyteller and the research ability of a reporter.” Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo emphasizes that the “writer of creative nonfiction presents the world—or that slice of it that he wishes to focus on—through the prism of his own personality. Thus he makes contact with the reader in a different way from that of the traditional journalist. The reader becomes involved, as he does in fiction.”

These definitions lay the foundations for my journey as a creative nonfiction writer. They acted like guide books to keep me from getting lost, even if my destination still depended on the instructions I chose to follow, the landmarks I paid attention to, and the pit stops I accidentally or purposely made along the way.

These landmarks, road signs and directions were the various “truths” I was used to simply stating and reporting as a professional writer: dates, names, records, numbers, studies. As a graduate student of creative nonfiction, I was about to discover that these facts were to inform the work, rather than to be the sole mold of an essay’s main truth. Going beyond the reports required wrestling with the discrepancies between accounts and the significance of the numbers; it meant listening to the details interviewees would focus on, and looking for an angle that had not been tackled by other works.

I soon found that accurately depicting facts, double-checking statistics, and citing studies were the easiest aspects of writing creative nonfiction. The rest of the work came from writing, re-writing and analyzing what I was trying to write.

In three creative nonfiction classes, I attempted to write three memoirs on my family. In one way or other, each essay delved into the time my sister fell into a crippling accident and we – my sister and I – chose to move away from our father.

The first essay tried to interlace the food I grew up with, my mother and grandmother’s relationship, and our three generations coming together during the time we moved into our grandparents’ home. It was a disjointed draft that struggled between trying to be a food essay and a memoir on familial relationships. After two submitted drafts, my professor and classmates still couldn’t read what was at stake in the relationship depicted between my grandmother and me.

Before this class, I wrote my first memoir on my immediate family. The working title at the time was “Daddy’s Girl,” wherein I struggled to write about the time my father refused to visit my sister at the hospital after that accident. The essay was divided into three fragments: a description of my father and a few vague paragraphs about our relationship, a recollection of my favorite childhood memory with him and how it escalated into fragments of violence as I grew older, and a more recent scene where my father grieves for our dead dog.

From my perspective, the text made sense. Yet the readers struggled with making sense of these events. As my professor described, “the main story arc formed by these fragments or episodes is not quite clear since your intention of showing the change in your relationship with (your) father including improvement was not too apparent.” Even the incidents themselves were questioned, and seeing them from a reader’s point of view helped me understand why: even I was still making sense of these events. “The language can only change once you’ve wrestled with all these problem areas mentioned,” my professor wrote on my submitted draft.

It was clear that there was no escaping the need to find that sense of purpose—that truth that had to be discovered in my chosen subject—in order for the essay to make more sense to its readers.

Although these events were told from my point of view, the journalist in me felt like I was writing an unfair account: how much of my family’s point of view should play a role in this piece? I knew that it wasn’t just my story to tell, but also my father’s, mother’s, and most especially, my sister’s.

There were times I wondered why I was writing that essay in the first place, as the main conflict revolved around my sister. My role in that story only ranged from being a sister, a hospital “bantay” (guardian), a supporter, a daughter, and a granddaughter. Even when I spoke to my sister about it, trying to see the incident from her point of view, I knew my words and my attitude would still filter through what I heard and witnessed.

In “The Whole Truth,” Peter M. Ives recounts a conflict in detail in a memory shared between him and his sister: “She remembered the day as being sunny. I remembered a light drizzle with low gray clouds. She remembered being with me in the bedroom when I found my father’s body. I remembered only my brother John being there.” He concludes, however, that this doesn’t matter “because one thing has always remained certain: our father died that day, and both of us remembered watching the ambulance attendants carry his body out the front door.”

In that incident of my family’s life, two things remain certain: that my sister slipped and was unable to walk for months, and that we decided to leave my father during the period she was regaining mobility on both her legs. Everything else – my sister’s struggle to regain motion on both legs, adjusting to a new home, battling the longer commute to and from work when I lived with my grandmother, seeing my mother juggle time between her daughters and her husband – would all be rendered in contrasting points of view, if everyone’s story was included.

Each of my drafts left readers asking, “What do you have at stake?” Once I had that figured out, the story I had to tell would come out. I had to let go of the practicing journalist’s need for objectivity and allow the lens of subjectivity to unfold the story.

At the same time, I needed the courage to face why I wanted to tell that story in the first place. Vulnerability has always been my problem. I am not the type to make friends at first meeting and I choose whom to share my personal problems to. But I was learning that this default had to be removed in writing: I didn’t have to reveal everything, but I also had to share just enough to connect with the reader. Facts, numbers, and fragmented accounts could only go so far in telling my story.

At the time I was writing those essays, I had just moved back into our family’s home, my sister was easing back into a regular job, and my father and I were being civil with one another. The unresolved matters of why we had left and why he did not visit my sister at the hospital had yet to be addressed. Looking back, I wrote these essays to make sense of the reconciliation my family was trying to find. I was not ready to write about it as the memories were too fresh and its conclusions were still unfolding as I settled back into living with the family.

Writing about family takes a high level of maturity and a long span of time to better understand the situations we face as individuals and as a whole. I was only 25 years old when I wrote the piece—far too young and confused to tackle what needed to be understood. And as you can read, I am still making sense of that time in my life, but some things read more clearly after three years. The escape from my father was necessary, but I also had to return in order to face the demons we left and properly resolve what was left unsaid.

Writing the essays – the memoir – taught me a lot about the word “truth.” In some ways, there are facts and data that cannot be contested. But as a writer, I am taking the cold, hard facts and situating them in a context where I can find my own truth. At the same time, I am inviting the reader to maybe seek his or her own truth in this story.

Perhaps this is why I write. In a world where even scientific information changes over time, and what we believe to be true depends on perspective, arguments, and conviction, writing and re-writing helps me sift through the clutter and understand this crazy life a little better.

About the contributor:

If she’s not thinking of her next meal, Gela Velasco is probably throwing herself into her work as a managing editor. She hopes to get more writing done in between.

Image Attribution: “sea sisters” by Amber Seegmiller is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).