TRUE STORY, IN AS MANY WORDS
TRUE STORY, IN AS MANY WORDS
Summer happened without me noticing this year, movement of space and time until I looked up and the sky had faded through pink into the last of blues to grey soon—or anyway I wrote something along those lines in a notebook. Then I wondered if the grey sky could be nonfiction if it hadn’t exactly happened yet, I just saw its inevitable coming. That night, I knew that the answer was no. No to everything, know, everything, we don’t, it’s not nonfiction and not fair to predict. The sky didn’t fade next through a palate of grays like I had absolutely known it would. Instead, it turned from some halfhearted, kind-of blue to deep, deep vomit, then straight to black from there. I couldn’t have made it up, it was that real.
Strange the genres of people we celebrate: both composers and the pianists that play them, but not both writers and their readers, except yes playwrights and actors. Bach, brilliant. Can you imagine writing something so beautiful that two-hundred and fifty years later, people shake their heads and say “artist” about a person who simply uses their fingertips to read your writing off the page? Music: non/fiction so alive it’s untrue, real.
For a period of my life I listened to Chopin instead of the news and stopped reading, settled instead on searching for words. I did word searches until I ran out of them, and then I searched and found those words again. And a third time. They were, of course, not my own. Not my own the next time either. For months I read only four-hundred-letter squares with two dozen words buried inside. “Haunted,” for example, is a word I found, and “veined,” “mystique,” “bruises.” I liked an Eminem-themed search that included “lose yourself” and “not afraid.” Elsewhere I found “climate,” “hippo,” “Adriatic,” “comet,” “ransom,” “energy,” “argon”—hundreds of other words. I wasn’t sure the genre into which all this searching might fall. Nonfiction just means real, I thought, but really there’s no such thing. “Insomnia” was another word I found, or at the very least defined. Let me spell it out for you, I-N-S-O-M-N-I-A, it’s non/fiction or real or un—whatever, I’m not picky with my words.
I need a word for the inability to sleep through the last daylight before a night shift, especially when it rains. The word for feeling thunder, seeing lightening through your eyelids and not being able to keep them closed. How thunder rumbles like agitated, angry, formidable hearts that will do as they please no matter how intently we will them to beat, and correctly. Pray or don’t, it will rain. Or won’t.
I was writing about a man whose story is one of them all. He kept lying, and I thought: lie to me some more, lie to me lots, enough so I can line up the different stories on tracing paper, hold them to a backlight and see where they contradict, which is where they point to what’s real. Trying to make sense of it all, I walked into a forest at night that was humming, buzzing, beautifully, screaming insects, pulsing with fireflies’ infrequent light. I listened to the woods singing in every form of communication but words and thought maybe lies are nobody’s fault. It’s just that language sometimes can’t carry the truth. Cut half the words—cut all of them. How much more is there?
Writing is just spending time with words. Other people’s, our own. Over years, forever, but acutely with specific words, each story time. Weeks with fragments and the ugly words: nudge them, slaughter them, resurrect and shuffle around. Sprinkle a draft with words of another species. Raze the whole thing with a dim, romantic hope in the concept of “phoenix.” The ashes settle to a draft gerand-ing, and just barely. It’ll get there. You’ll get there. You—no one knows these words better. A joy, pain and wonder to witness as they emerge.
One winter night in Washington, DC, I stood with a writer on the roof in the rain. I watched the lightening, thinking that just because the clouds spark doesn’t mean the sky’s on fire. Except it does. We were close to each other, talking about memory and he told me a story he wanted to create about it—the plot escapes me now. I need a word for that, too. Close to each other talking about stories. And a word for remembering that. How tissue paper memory dissolves in the rain.
An Afghan poet and I spoke of languages and what should be conveyed with each: love in Persian or French, winter in Norwegian. English for hamburgers—with all respect to Shakespeare, he said. Music, I said, for all. He disagreed. The alphabet of Western music has seven letters; most have a half-letter between. Afghan music incorporates quarter steps, additional letters that in the west we may not hear. Music is not a universal language if a listener cannot understand its letters, the poet said, and a harmonium or piano fugue might not across the whole world ring true. We considered whether poetry is fiction or fact. It is neither, of course, we agreed, it is both.
In different languages, we have watched the texture of paper as our pens run across it, depth of the etch of each letter. We write maps until everything is a map, until there are no maps or the maps all point back to themselves. Both of us have written many pens out of ink, but we do not understand each other’s letters. Time lost, wasted or spent—is it all true? I made some notes in a journal. “Are you drawing or writing?” the poet asked. “I am drawing a picture with words.”
All night our nuances were lost in translation; eventually we apologized for the quiet common ground. At a loss for words, the poet broke my glass. Earlier in the evening I'd said, "I want to smash this on the floor," and he’d laughed and said, "do it." I had not. We picked up the pieces and then the plastic bag we’d put them in tore. They shattered a second time to sparkling fragments on the floor.
Plant grapes at my grave, the poet said. Grapes at my grave and my bones will turn to yeast. The stories that end are impossible, I said. They cannot be nonfiction. He told me I do not understand. But I am helpless here, I said. All I have is this tattered language of English, a couple photographs and my studied beginning of your language from which to convey, to speak.
The night ended with poetry, as all nights with this poet do. The words didn’t dance until we read them aloud. When the words don't dance, read them, out loud. We can read many times before we understand—we may never.
Rianna Starheim is a journalist and paramedic based between Afghanistan, Virginia and rural New York, writing about human rights and wrongs, fire, war, PTSD and resilience.