Guest Blogger Erica Watson: Some Thoughts on “Truth”

I promise not to
say his name, but I trust you all know who I mean when I say that a certain
public figure—well, maybe more than one—has forced (some) Americans to examine
our individual and cultural relationships with the truth. This person’s
relationship with “the truth” has been described as “loose,” as similar to a “lemur’s
relationship with the Supreme Court vacancy;” that is to say, utterly irrelevant.
There are those who find this disturbing, and others who find it enticing and
maybe a little exciting.
I fall into the
former camp, which has given rise to some questions about the differences
between truth-telling in politics and in art. I generally claim a pretty high
tolerance of blurred lines, of what Sherry Simpson (via comedian Stephen
Colbert) refers to in her teaching as “truthiness.” If I read something
categorized as nonfiction, and learn that some details of characters or events
were altered for the sake of the story or the people involved, but still ring true,
my response is usually “eh.” In high school, I made myself a t-shirt with Neil
Gaiman’s statement “Things need not have happened to be true” printed across
it. Even though I don’t think I could write real fiction (and what the hell
does that mean?) to save my life, the sentiment still resonates. Memory is
flawed. Subjectivity is messy. Creative work implies a license to shape and
color the creation. This we know and accept; move on.  
I’ve been slowly
making my way through Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. When I started the book, I knew nothing of
the controversies surrounding it, but some Googling dug up criticisms that
Hurston wrote Dust Tracks to appease
her publisher, and either by Hurston’s design or overly invasive editing, minimized
the author’s experiences of racism and violence while highlighting friendships
with white benefactors, thus appeasing white audiences with a more
assimilationist worldview than the rest of her work suggests. Alice Walker
called it “the most unfortunate thing Hurston ever wrote.” And amidst these
criticisms were also claims that Hurston misrepresented facts and details of
her own life, or just made things up; one Goodreads reviewer suggests that “if
you want to know the real Zora Neale Hurston, read Carla Kaplan’s biography.”
I bristled at
this; why would I read someone else’s words when Hurston wrote her own, even if
she took some liberties with “truth”? Her life is her truth to play with, isn’t
But. The
accusations of pandering complicate that. Last year, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote
an essay called “On Pandering” (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s worth
reading and sitting with for a while) in which she examines a circuitous string
of events and conversations that landed her at the questions “Who am I writing
for? Who am I writing toward?”
She continues, “Myself,
I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made
about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the
opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching,
approval seeking, people pleasing.” I don’t know anything about Watkins’
writing, beyond the fact that I’ve been told I’d like it, and I probably would.
Her revelation that she recognized her own pandering probably won’t change my
enjoyment of her books when I do get to them; my tastes have also been shaped
by the white male literati. But I’m sure it has changed her own writing
processes, and in turn she asks us to change, or at least examine, our own.
Around the time
that Watkins’ essay was published, or at least close enough that they have
melded into the same conversation in my memory (which is inherently flawed),
Ernestine Hayes asked in this blog, “Who are we reading? Who are we writing?”
She asks students and readers to examine and refine our reading lists to include
indigenous writers telling their own stories “rather than allowing others to do
that work.” She wrote, “I have come to realize that there is a difference
between fact and truth. As a writer, I know that what we call fiction often
reveals our personal stories, and what we label non-fiction is frequently no
more than illusions we have fashioned into our narrative.”

Maybe the
unacceptability of some “loose relationships with the truth” originates in what
motivates the speaker. In the case of the aforementioned unnamed figure whose
manipulations of reality are motivated by prestige and greed rather than
genuine truth-seeking, it is conscious pandering at its worst. And while
politics and art are entirely different disciplines, both are acts of
storytelling, of presenting a vision of reality and seeing who will join you,
and it’s worth asking practitioners of both, “who are you writing for?” And the
answer might give some insight into the nature of their “truthiness.”

Erica Watson is an essayist living on the boundary of Denali National Park. She completed her MFA in nonfiction at UAA in 2014. Her work has appeared most recently in PilgrimageThe Fiction Advocate, and Denali National Park’s Climate Change Anthology, and she is a recipient of a fellowship to Fishtrap’s summer 2016 program. She will eventually update her website at

1 thought on “Guest Blogger Erica Watson: Some Thoughts on “Truth””

  1. Like faith and love, truth seems an ineffable and highly subjective thing. This reminds me of something from about 15 years ago; 17 famous writers were asked to write an essay on "What is True." I was profoundly disappointed when all – ALL of them failed to deliver, declaring it impossible. Instead they all chose to write on what is truth – a very different animal.
    I appreciate what Ernestine had to say, as always. Indeed, she seems to be a woman who is very clear on what is true in her life. It's why I love to read her works.
    Thanks for an interesting post here today.

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