Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Suzan Lori Parks, or why I have fiction-writer envy

Last night a friend and I went to hear one of my favorite writers, playwright turned novelist Suzan Lori Parks, speak at the Paramount Theater in Austin. I've loved her work for years but didn't know till reading this Austin Chronicle interview that she grew up in Odessa; she announced last night she still identifies herself as a Texan - who'da thunk? I guess we'll claim her. :-)

Parks is one of those playwrights, and they are truly few, whose works I enjoy reading even more than seeing them staged. It's not that her plays aren't great vehicles for dramatic stagecraft.
(They don't hand those Pulitzer Prizes for drama out to just anybody.) She's just such a brilliant writer, I always enjoy lingering over the layered metaphors and lyrically loaded language for longer than the theater setting allows. I can't wait to read her new novel. Whenever I've seen one of her plays, I go home eager to lay my hands on the text and more or less devour it afterward.

Anyway, while answering questions after her talk, Parks made a comment that cut to the core of some of my own struggles as a writer, especially focused as I am on nonfiction (all my own efforts at fiction writing were both private and mediocre). One must distinguish between "facts," "history" and "truth," she declared, and the former two frequently obscure instead of illuminate the latter. When they conflict, she said, she felt obligated as an artist and a person to cling to truth.

That's a difficult hurdle for me - a lot easier said than done. I spend a lot of time searching through "facts" and "history" looking for "truth," and am often troubled that "truth," in the end, does seem to be something separate and apart from facts and history, from the issues of interest, analysis, and argument that so frequently consume this blog. As ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote (trans. by Thomas Cleary), "Suppose I have a debate with you, and you beat me, I don't beat you - does that mean you are actually right and I am actually wrong? If I beat you and you don't beat me, does that mean I am actually right and you are actually wrong? Are both right? Are both wrong?"

Maybe fiction writers face a less onerous task on that score. Maybe it's easier to seek truth when facts and history don't so aggressively obstruct one's view.

UPDATE: For other accounts of last night's event see the Austinist, Spark blog, and local playwright Adrienne Dawes.


Anonymous said...

This post is included in Austinist's Best of the Austin Blogs for this week.

Patrick Nichols said...

Parks really was great, and she got me thinking about my own writing too -- especially how I can make the leap into fiction and finally make use of some of those ideas I've been holding on to for years. Of course, then I came home and kept up the inertia....