When I taught at the University of California at Irvine while working toward my MFA in Fiction, in the early 1990s, I encountered two students whose names I no longer recall but whose work struck me so profoundly that I mention them to this day in every workshop I teach.
We were required, at UC Irvine, to assign an essay that was "the most important thing ever to happen to me." Writers are acquainted with the notion that "honesty" and "truth-telling" are essential elements of prose, but what does that mean?
There was a huge immigrant population of Vietnamese students, and Cambodians as well as other Asian communities. They comprised about half of my classroom. The other half consisted of southern Californians who resembled Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; think "surfer dudes."
There were breathtaking essays from many of the Asian émigrés—a young Chinese-American girl saying farewell to her grandmother, knowing she’d never see her again, was one I still recall—but there was also a piece by a young man whose family had fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia, their village on fire as soldiers gave chase. His mother administered morphine to his infant brother to keep him quiet, and he died in her arms before they crossed into Thailand.
What he wrote was true—the full story—but it was a clinical reporting of facts. The assignment required a series of rewrites with each student, and he agreed that he wanted to explore more deeply what all of this felt like. Here’s where truth turns into a peeling of the layers of an onion, more than its being a revelation, however potent or daring. He tried the essay from the first-person point of view; that made everything more poignant. But then he explored the look on his mother’s face, the smell of fire, the presence of a dead little brother. Understandably enough, he rushed through it. The final draft slowed things down so I, the reader, experienced the anguish and drama. I’d read five drafts, but I only cried at the final one, despite knowing already what would occur. He won a major campus prize for this essay, because he dug toward a more profound sensation of truth, a story as-it-was-lived. Honing an even finer (and braver) honesty. He confessed to being physically exhausted by the process; I admired him for that.
But what to do if one doesn’t have a story from the Killing Fields? What if you happen to be a So-Cal surfer guy? What’s the nature (or even the point) of truth-telling here? My "Sean Penn" wrote that the most important thing ever to happen to him was
the night he and his pals got drunk and knocked down the mailboxes in the neighborhood.
The easiest thing would have been to dismiss him out-of-hand. But I asked "Sean" if this was indeed what he wanted to write about—he did—so I asked him to tell me more about that night. His next draft revealed that the driver of the car that night deliberately swerved to strike and kill a dog on the side of the road. He’d omitted this horrific revelation in the first draft. The prose this time was a scree about his stupid friends.
My question: Where were you in the car? He wasn’t deliberately trying to hide his behavior; he wanted to tell something. But it was imbedded so deeply it needed defining before it could get pried out. He did and didn’t know how ashamed he was at his silence. His next draft was a scree about what an idiot he was.
I told him that was taking himself off the hook, offering self-excoriation to neutralize our judgment. He needed to render the scene: give a play-by-play of what being in the car felt like. The impact of the car hitting the animal. The laughter. His passivity. His body language. The thud of mailboxes.
What followed was a touching, sad, disturbing essay in which he made himself vulnerable, framing a universal ring of the silences we have all created that mark us, humiliate us, awaken us. He also remembered his father laughing at the police who suggested that knocking down mailboxes constituted vandalism; he couldn’t bear turning into a man like his father. The act of writing, the exploration about the nature of truths he didn’t even know he carried, insured he wouldn’t see himself the same way either.
I don’t know what’s become of either of these two men, but they taught me in an unforgettable way about "truth" in fiction. More than that: How truth works in life itself, and why stories matter.