Friday, March 17, 2017

Making it Tidy

In her difficult but rewarding book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, film, video and multimedia artist Michell Citron writes about her dreadful experiences with incest and the difficult ways to narrate it in film and prose. In one particularly interesting passage, she nails the tensions between the lure and the weakness of narrative, writing from the perspective of a filmmaker, but the challenges she describes common to any writer:
Narrative renders the incomprehensible understandable. Narrative offers the much needed illusions of coherency and cause and effect where there were none. Narrative puts the author at case. For the audience, however, narrative reduces a complex, confusing, overdetermined tidal wave of experiences and half-found awareness into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy, and makes it, at the structural level, familiar. Narrative makes it seem safe. This is a lie. Everything that makes narrative honest for the author is precisely what makes it false for the audience. Pieces not wholeness, discontinuity not fluidity is a more authentic language for the expression of trauma and its aftermath.
Speaking as an essayist and nonfiction writer, to evocatively and artfully piece together the past with the parts showing, rather than as whole, seamless cloth, seems to me the dividing line between authentic memoir/essays and less-authentic ones, between writing that recognizes the vagaries of memory and the chaos of the past and writing that shapes that chaos into a form with a beginning-middle-end. I've already mixed my metaphors in the preceding sentence, so let me go further. Autobiography-as-architecture: I prefer a partially constructed building with a few enticing closed-off rooms, uneven stairs, mirrors on the walls that distort, a stuffed attic that's off-limits, and the external scaffolding showing. Yet I deal with the necessity of syntax, of sentences and paragraphs. The stubborn question: where is the sweet spot where baffling incoherence—how reality feels—meets art—the root of which, after all, ar, means to shape and mold?

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