20th Annual Literary Festival
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Mace & Crown October 21, 1997

LitFest panel addresses the quest for reality:
What Kind of Fire: Three Genres, Three Truths?

Staff Writer

In the span of about an hour, in front of an auditorium overflowing with inquisitive literary minds, three of this country's most highly regarded writers tackled the eternal question: "What exactly is truth?"

The topic, a challenge to writers of all three genres since the day pen was first laid to paper, was discussed by nonfiction writer Melissa Fay Greene, poet Liz Waldner, and fiction writer Reginald McKnight.

According to Greene, truth and accuracy are paramount to the non-fiction writer, whose challenge it is to identify the spectrum of truth and non-truth without making "stuff" up.

"The idea is to be both factual and creative," Greene said. "After all, truth cast as a story is the most popular genre, and it is left up to the individual reader to determine what is, in fact, the truth."

According to Waldner, truth is "a felt sense", and while there is no standard for truth in poetry, the continual quest for it is the objective of the poet, whose work would fail without it.

McKnight said he considered the truth an entity that he and other fiction writers must approach much differently than the other writers, as fiction is a "lie" truthfully told.

"My objective is to be as honest as possible although I am constantly making things up," McKnight said "And while I am literally truthful, truth, by definition, is virtual, and therefore something the fiction writer can't get to just by reporting the facts."

All three panelists agreed that both poetry and fiction can sometimes be more authentic representations of truth than nonfiction, if the nonfiction is presented with too narrow a slant.

"I believe, for example, that the poetry and literature from the Elizabethan Period accurately captured the tone of that time," Greene said.

The panel discussion was immediately followed by a question and answer session with audience members, allowing those in attendance to leave the auditorium with new insight and the realization that they are not alone in their never-ending search for the truth.

"Just being in the audience was worth the price of my tuition," said ODU graduate student and fiction writer Robert Hembree. "It meant a great deal to be able to listen to successful writers and learn that what is important about their work is exactly what is important about mine," Hembree said. "What a valuable experience!"

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