This week’s post is from award-winning poet Maria Masington about truth in writing.
How honest can we be?
The best poem I ever wrote has never been, nor will it ever be, published. My critique group and editor loved it, but it encroaches on the privacy of three real people – so it never sees the light of day. On the flip side, I once submitted a short story, and the publisher wrote back saying that it was obviously not fiction – when every word of it was made up. The best received spoken-word piece I ever performed greatly upset a family member, even though it was very funny and complimentary toward him. I never performed it again. When do we tell the raw and sometimes sordid truth, and when do we need to decide a piece cannot be shared?
As poets, novelists, memoirists, and short story writers, and especially those of us who write creative nonfiction, where do we draw the line between the truth, people’s privacy, and our art? My dear friend and editor, Ramona DeFelice Long, was an expert at this. Sadly, Ramona died from a rare cancer in October, but I always remember what she taught me. If it’s about you, you can be as honest as you want – unless it will embarrass or negatively impact someone else. If it’s about someone else – get their permission first. If you feel like it’s too intimate or uncomfortable to ask their permission, you are probably on shaky ground and should not use it publicly. She also taught me not to hesitate to revisit pieces as something that your child was upset about as a teenager. They could care less if you have it published once they are an adult.
Living in the same small city for over 50 years, I am very careful about who and what I talk about. I use a lot of “tricks,” switching daughters to sons, changing up names of schools, locations, and so forth. But every once in a while, I just have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – as long as no one gets hurt. My husband has given me carte blanche – he does not want to read anything first and does not care what I write about (now, that’s a secure guy!). I have a child, however, who read a very innocuous poem I wrote and was extremely upset thinking it was about them – which it was, but no one would have ever figured that out – but I buried it anyway.
My relationships and respect for other people’s privacy must come first, but I also owe it to myself as a writer to tell my stories, share my truth, and often in my poetry, be brutally honest. It’s the fine line we all walk as writers. I’m sure I have unintentionally made mistakes in the past, I also think I probably am sitting on pieces that would be fine to publish, but I must err on the side of caution.
A lot of audiences, especially at poetry readings, think everything is autobiographical – which is why I announce before every reading that it is not. I do, however, clue them in on what pieces are true to life because it’s human nature to find that interesting. I am very grateful to Ramona for teaching me how to navigate this issue. So, here’s to us poets, writers, and spoken word artists…tightrope walkers all, balancing between integrity and honesty.
Maria Masington is a poet, author, and spoken word artist from Wilmington, Delaware. Her poetry has appeared in over a dozen publications, including Adanna, The News Journal, The BroadkillReview, Earth’s Daughters, and by the University of Colorado. In 2016, she received honorable mention for the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize and had had seven short stories published by both local and international presses. Maria is a member of The Mad Poets Society and is an emcee and featured poet on the local art scene. She has been a guest on WVUD ArtSound and a three-time fellow at the Delaware Division of the Arts Cape Henlopen Poets and Prose Retreat. Her first chapbook, Mouth Like a Sailor, is being launched by Parnilis Media on Sunday, 9/19/21, at 7 pm via Zoom.