Fictions, in this respect, have it all over the truth. “More truth than poetry,” Yelverton likes to say but misses the point. True-to-life shows a muddle, the poet showing the truth as it might be. This is what all honest writing comes down to, not imagination but the estimating eye. The writer, privileged, fills in the blanks, seeing how the ending is only the tip of the iceberg. His privilege doesn’t extend to sleight of hand, though, where they want you to think that what ought to be might be. 1 Clever people invented fiction, first, one might say, as cave paintings, but certainly as song and poetry and eventually stories and novels, to sort the muddle. Because we have to sort the muddle, the muddle becomes unbearable when that seems to be all there is. Science sorts the muddle, and that is essential, too, but science is an arc that bends toward clarity about what is, and we crave clarity on what might be and what ought to be. We are drawn to emotional clarity, though we are not good at interrogating it to make sure it is grounded in truth.
“Showing the truth as it might be” is a crucial phrase. Shallow, self-satisfied scribblers of fiction enjoy hearing themselves say that they pursue “a higher truth” than those who report and document. This is horseshit and Russell Fraser, author of the above, squares up to the poet as one who does not apprehend truth, but says, “Here, this is what the truth might be in my estimation.” By his or her “estimating eye.”
As crucial, perhaps more, is the last sentence. The honest writer, purveying fact or fiction, does not get to put forth an estimate of truth based on what the poet thinks truth ought to be. Honest writing that gnaws on its subject until it gets at the true and the real is hard. It is rigorous, stressful, scary labor. It is not a card trick.
1 From “Wadi-Bashing in Arabia Deserta” by Russell Fraser, published in the Spring 1987 edition of Virginia Quarterly Review.