What Is Truth?
From Writer to Subject
Pontius Pilate's line "What is truth?" in the Gospel of John has long resonated with me, even more after I started studying creative nonfiction at Spalding University (where I earned an MFA). What is truth in creative nonfiction? Or biographies? Or translation?
Since my last newsletter, I went from my first byline in a “big” online magazine to a local news story about me in just over a week, leading me to ruminate on being a writer as well as being a subject. As a writer, I had pitched the Atlantic twice before having a pitch accepted. I labored over the essay for a week, then had it strengthened by an editor, who sent suggestions which I had time to address. I had an opportunity to read the edited piece before it posted to offer suggestions or corrections. My church doesn't know what to do anymore--not a title I came up with, but it works--posted while I was at my first in-person clergy event since January 2020. I appreciated hearing from my colleagues how much the piece cohered with their own experiences and for several days heard from clergy and others all over the country. Some took issue with the piece, but overall the response (to me) was positive.
On a Saturday evening just over a week later, I heard on Twitter from a young local news reporter who had read the Atlantic article and thought the topic might be of local interest. He wanted to come to St. David's the next morning, interview me, and film part of our service. I would have preferred to mull over this for a while, like I was able to do with my pitches to the Atlantic, but the news moves faster than that. I was nervous about having someone else write such a story but figured the exposure would be good for St. David’s. I didn’t have time to think up talking points: I led two services, then was interviewed and answered questions honestly. When I watched the news that evening I was surprised and pleased that the piece showed up so early in the broadcast and was further surprised by how long it was. Their title was “Church divided over priest’s pandemic leadership,” which I didn't like as much as "My church doesn't know what to do anymore," and the slant was not that 2021 was harder than 2020 as my focus had been in the Atlantic piece, instead narrowing in on division we had experienced over different comfort levels with masks.
I thought the reporter did a great job, and was fascinated to become the subject of a story after years of writing them, as well as by how fast a news reporter has to put together a story, as opposed to the time I was able to take with my Atlantic essay. We can see ourselves in the stories of others; and, the story I see was not the same story the reporter saw. Other members of my church see still different stories. All of these stories may be true, but we see, collect, and present those truths differently. I would not have focused on that division: to me, it’s just a small piece of a marvelous church. But most stories focus on something small, don’t they? Specificity sings in creative nonfiction.
So, what is truth?
I was inspired to write my Atlantic article partly because I was tired of having others in the Episcopal church and elsewhere tell me that really, despite the pandemic and the subsequent shutdowns and continuing tribulations, everything is great. I was tired of positive spins. That did not ring true to me. I was angry at being told that all would be better if I did things differently. But, the number of people who have reached out to me in concern following both stories make wonder about my truth. Everything I wrote and said was true, but they are all pieces of a larger story.
While my ministry at St. David’s may be difficult right now, my writing life and personal life are incredible. More than anything, of course, I am just delighted to be alive following my two back-to-back cancer fights. Writing Blessed Are the Barren is challenging and hard, but more than anything, sheer delight. This month, for example, I’m researching and writing about childless Protestant Reformers in England, focusing on Jane Grey and Queen Elizabeth I. (I had intended to write about Anne Askew, but unexpectedly found a mention of her two children in the course of my research.) To go with that theme of truth, I am now reading about the three Grey sisters right after reading a different biography of Jane Grey. Both books are by good writers and historians, but the true stories present different selections of facts and different interpretations, making me ponder with Pontius Pilate—who is not a personal hero—“What is truth?”
I’d love to hear some of your truths. Please leave a comment, and thanks for reading.
What I’m Reading:
All three of these are library books, so if you live nearby, you can pick them up at the Chesterfield Country library next month, after I return them because I will have moved on to my next chapter. I linked to them on Goodreads this time, because Bookshop.org only had the audiobooks
Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion by Susan Ronald
Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen by Leanda de Lisle. I have de Lisle’s book After Elizabeth and keep intending to read it but it migrates around to various TBR piles. My husband laughs about how I will have books lying around for years, but read library books right away. Their due dates make them urgent!
What I’m Writing