Authenticity: Writing about War and Peace

Christopher McIlroySpeak Peace: American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children is an international, collaborative traveling art exhibit out of Kent State featuring paintings by Vietnamese children and American responses in the form of poetry. The Poetry Center invites you to visit this exhibit from now through September 23, 2011. On Saturday, September 17, from 11:30 - 12:30 participants in the Hopi Foundation's Owl & Panther Project will give a reading of their responses to the paintings in this exhibit. Join us.

I have no specific qualifications to address authenticity in writing as it relates to war, so let's get that out of the way. Assisting with Marge Pellegrino in the Speak Peace project has been my first experience of the kind. My students in the Tohono O'odham and Yaqui communities live with hardship, pain, and grief to a degree I scarcely can imagine, and produce writing of a rare eloquence and authenticity from that background, but I realize it isn't the same.

I even find it hard to define the slippery "authentic." We can't even say that "we know it when we see it."  We may not agree upon what strikes that note in us when we read, view, or hear what we believe to be authentic. Sincerity seems a necessary component but not a sufficient one. Rarely do we hear the response, "I admire the authenticity of the piece, but unfortunately it's terrible." The authentic must capture a truth, as well, and probably artfully.

Confronting war is overwhelming in itself. In the case of Marge's student and adult writers from Owl and Panther, often refugees from war in their homelands, many have endured those horrors first hand.

The question of authenticity becomes embedded in the larger issue of how the traumatized might respond to others' similar trauma, and how they might be lifted by others' resilience; alongside the depictions of monstrous violence and its aftermath, many of the Vietnamese children's paintings are radiant with visions of peace, while some merge the suffering and the transcendence into a single image, as if they're inextricable.

For the writers, I believe that raw emotional response, unmediated by art, must be honored. If the writing can be no more than a cry, a scream, an embrace of compassion, or a prayer of hope, then that is the value the writer needed. Pure outbreaks of the heart can rise to high art, of course, but they may not.

Beyond that, we can help our student writers avoid self-consciousness, which for most artists is the enemy of authenticity.
In my experience, self-consciousness arises from the opposites of self-doubt and self-congratulation, in some cases at the same time. In the former, writers are too afraid of performing badly to lose themselves in the work at hand, in the latter, too intent on performing well.

We teachers can help by surprising our students past those barriers, encouraging them and questioning them to become immersed in the work, the subject, instead.

In the case of the Speak Peace paintings, these means could include:

  • describing what is happening in the paintings as precisely and expressively as possible
  • exploring POV, relating one's own first-person experiences in some way to the painting; or writing first-person in the persona of a figure or even abstract force in the poem or writing second-person to the painter, to aspects of the painting, to viewers of the painting or readers of the poem
  • making the painting part of a story, as if it were one still in a series of frames
  • examining the aesthetics of the content, how color, line, design create meaning in the painting
  • riding the sound and form of the poem itself--its rhythms, possibly rhymes, and
  • other patterns--into a meaning of sound and language
  • using simile and metaphor as a means of leaping the gulf between the viewers'
  • experiences and the painters', finding a new common territory.

For writers whose own experiences may be too raw for them to respond directly to the often terrible and heartbreaking scenes depicted in the paintings, the last three approaches in particular might allow them access to the images in a less threatening way.

May these students' writings become one more step on their journey of healing.

For further resources on teaching War and Peace in the classroom, click here.

For children's books on War and Peace, click here.

Christopher McIlroy is the author of the collection All My Relations, which received the Flannery O'Connor Award. He lives in Arizona, where he co-founded the non-profit ArtsReach, which provides writing programs for Native American communities.

Created on: 
Friday, September 9, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents