Yesterday the program sponsored a screening of Fighter, a documentary that tracews Jan Wiener's escape from Prague during World War II. Wiener is accompanied upon his return to Europe by writer Arnost Lustig, who is interested in writing Wiener's story.
At the center of the film is the men's disagreement about how the story should be treated. Lustig, ever the fictionalist, insists upon filling in details of what the "characters" were thinking, what motivated their decisions. Wiener, having lived the events, insists that such an analysis is bullshit. He is insulted by speculation about mental processes taht one couldn't possibly know and his indignance over this eventually leads him to quit the project altogether.
Aside from being an enjoyable movie--the banter of these towo old friends who are in their 70's is a hoot--The Fighter touches on ethical questions with which I've been struggling, particularly with respect to an exercise we were asked to do in Jack Myers' workshop this week. The exercise was this: Create a dialogue between two photos of yourself--one as a child and one that was taken more recently.
Here's a part of the poem I wrote:
Instead, you ask how the tides work
and he explains carefully
that the combined force
of all the tails of all the fishes in the sea
pushes the waves in
and draws them out.
You know that's not true.
You think you know everything.
The "you" is my younger self and the "he" is my father. The problem: my father never told me that story. My brother's best friend told me that story. And I believed him at the time because he was cute and I wanted him to like me. But he just laughed at my stupidity. But the poem's not about my brother's best friend (maybe it should be). I chose that story because it illustrates so clearly a larger issue that I'm trying to get at in my father's tendancy to make up answers to questions when he doesn't know the actual answers. It's a liberty I took without even thinking about it for the sake of the poem. I take liberties like that all the time, which is perhaps why I prefer imaginative content to content taken directly from life (both as a reader and as a writer).
My MA thesis prject was a mostly fabricated family history in verse. I've abandoned it mostly due to exhaustion and lack of interest. I did so much fabricating in order to make the narrative interesting to a potential reader that I finally had to wonder whether I should just write something original. Is it important to hang on to the scaffolding of real life events when one must do so much to make them interesting? I keep thinking that this is what's wrong with a lot of poetry--that writers have taken the old saw about writing what you know too much to heart and imagination is no longer as valued as it should be.
Anyway, when I was in the MA program that produced my abortive thesis, the issue of ethics and appropriation came up often in discussion. I always came down on the side of ultimate freedom for the writer and I still believe that if a writer self-censors or is censored by social pressure or loyalty to truth at the generative stages of a piece, nothing good can come of it. But I'm also a realist--there are consequences to messing with other people's stories. Even more, in the case of this exercise poem, I have to admit that it's not just my story--it's also my father's. None of us live in a vacuum of story ownership.
I think of Wiener's anger with Lustig--of the rift in their friendship caused by a writer's obsessive need to fill in the blanks, to orchestrate events and ideas and essentially make another's story his own. No doubt Lustig's additions and revisions would make for a better book. But why do violence to a friend's history? Why not conceive of and write an original piece of fiction instead?
Wiener's story will perhaps never be written in prose. Rather, this documentary serves as the medium for the telling. Maybe a more appropriate one.