Uncategorized | February 23, 2016
Contributors on Craft: Dawn S. Davies on Truth-Seeking and Audience Response
Today, the Missouri Review presents the second installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Dawn S. Davies, whose essay “King of the World” appears in Winter 2015.
Other People’s Truths
Recently, I went on an Otis Taylor bender, playing “Nasty Letter” on repeat and listening to it for hours per day—in my car, on walks, and while cooking or cleaning. I tend to go on toots like that, reading the same book four times in a row, or listening to a single song for a few weeks at a time until I get what I am looking for, usually a slippery vein of truth about life that resonates with me. Something about “Nasty Letter” had become extremely interesting and I was studying its make-up, trying to breathe in the truth of that piece like a fragrance. I had no idea that I was about to receive a nasty letter of my own about one of my essays.
I don’t live in la-la land. I write personal, brutally honest essays about difficult things, so I know everyone won’t like my work. In fact, because I’ve been on a different kind of bender for the past few years, I’ve been writing about things like pedophilia, roadkill, suicidal ideations, death, unsentimental forays into parenting and other types of offenses. Because of the subject matter, I expect some people will strongly oppose my writing, enough to send me nasty letters from time to time. I am confident enough in my skill to not be upset when someone responds negatively, but before I trusted myself as a writer, I worried a lot about being disliked or rejected (mostly by friends and family members who still thought I was a sweetheart), so much so that I wasn’t truly honest when I wrote. Until I snapped out of it, this approach weakened my writing and made it common.
I recently published a longer essay on truth in creative nonfiction, and it seems I’m not finished writing about it, because I think about it often. I look for mini-truths everywhere, however subjective “truth” may seem these days. It’s why I listen to the same song on repeat, or read the same book multiple times. It’s why I look for trends in advertising and and language. It’s why I consider the things people do to be as important as the things they say, since there is so much truth revealed when you study a lie. I can’t stop hoping that glint of truth will always show itself, however briefly, and I am devoted to tracking this in my own writing, and sometimes there is tracking required, as I will initially think I am writing about one thing (my killer dog, for instance) only to find that when the essay is finished, I had been writing about a much more serious, universally truthful thing (in this case, the painful recognition that everything changes without your permission when children grow up and move away).
What are techniques I use that help illuminate truth in an interesting way that goes beyond confession or exposé? How do I write tough stuff with honesty and not make it sound melodramatic or contrived or self-conscious? There is more to it than making sure I am not lying to myself when I write, and no longer giving a rip about what people think of me, though these principles help. One thing I like to do is to match up elements that have no business hanging out together, such as using humor to convey sadness or horror, or using simple language to convey complex ideas, or rubbing medical lingo or formal language awkwardly up against slang. I’m not yet exactly sure why I do this, but I think it is disarming and by “disarming” I mean it removes people’s emotional armor. Reading naked is good, and so is having a laugh when you least expect it.
I also often find myself going visceral. If there is vomit, I say where it lands. If I remember what was in it, I describe the flecks. If I am an idiot and underestimate my dog, and I write about both the horror of the dog repeatedly eating our family pets and my own ignorance at the same time, then I can’t shrink from the horror of the animals getting eaten and there is no way I can make myself look good. It’s bad, but it’s also okay, because it’s real. It also helps to keep the writing from being sentimental. I’m not a fan of sentimental.
I like thinking about technique, but I also believe that intent is important. People read for different reasons, one of which is to connect to truth in the world. I think sometimes people are afraid of facing the truth, and sometimes we are afraid of telling it. Sometimes we read to experience other people doing this for us. Taking an unexpected angle or writing quirky, visceral detail can help a reader trust me, which in turn may help the reader take a part of my truth and somehow make it their own.
People also write for different reasons. I am not wise enough to know what collectively makes all writers tick, but I can tell you what drives my writing. I don’t write to amuse people, though I use humor often. I don’t write to impress people, though positive feedback makes me feel good. I write because I love the truth, even if the truth makes me look bad. I also write because, as a reader, I find other people’s truths to be powerful and illuminating, and sometimes life-changing. Other people’s truths have shocked me, frightened me, blessed me, made me think new things, and have helped me to understand the complex, painful or mysterious elements of life. Other people’s truths have healed me, and I write because I would like to return the favor. In my case, due to my subject matter, the occasional nasty letter is part of the price of honesty. The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.
Dawn S. Davies has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essays have received Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize and notable mention in Best American Essays 2015. Her work can be found in the Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere. You can find out more at dawnsdavies.com
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