When I was seventeen, in 1973, I started going to meetings of the then-young National Organization for Women. I lived in urban New Jersey and had no means of getting to NOW meetings, so I did what I knew to do then and hitchhiked. Most of the drivers who picked me up were men, and occasionally one would refuse to stop and let me out, even gunning through lights. So I did what I knew to do again and rolled out of the car whenever it slowed down, getting to NOW meetings two or three times with holes in my jeans, fresh cuts, and bruises.

I sat at the meetings and listened to talk of rape as a tool of patriarchal control and had no idea what had bruised me had anything to do with that discussion. I lacked the tools or sophistication to apply these larger narratives of control to my own life; feminism ultimately gave me those tools. Second-wave feminism had flaws, but the women in that room ran the gamut, from middle-class housewives to high school dropouts, like me, who’d hitchhiked there and arrived with holes in their jeans.  The movement had that urgency.

I used this story recently, in a book I’m finishing. It was important to me as I wrote this down and it’s important to me again that I know and you, the reader, understand that this story is true. I may even have understated—hands on me, breath reeking of liquor, and malt beer empties in the back stir the surface of my memory of those times.

I am fascinated by John D’Agata’s  The Lifespan of a Fact and by the appropriations in David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and the questions these works and others raise about altering facts or authorship in nonfiction.  At the same time I crave language that delineates where hyperbole and invention and even massaging dates end and where urgency, or at least, a kind of urgency that demands a rejection of those techniques, begins. I want to mark the borders of those stories that would dissolve under manipulation, back into the delicate and near-evanesced blood and sweat and tears that made them.

My argument does not mean that to adopt one means or another in literary crafting is to be on the side of the angels. (If you want to make the literary gods laugh, declare there is a side of the angels; those gods hold their angels close, and trying to outguess them will provide everyone a good giggle a few years down the road.)

The language of reality, of nonfiction, has absorbed ideas of emotional truth, pastiche, omission, exaggeration, alteration.  All of those can be successful—wonderfully successful—strategies, but not ones that fit with the sign of the urgent, often a sign of the literary zodiac governing those essential stories we have not heard before and cannot risk losing to did-he-or-didn’t-she speculation. I started this essay after finishing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book that could not hint that solo-hiking an eleven-hundred mile trail could be metaphor, the bodily damage emotional corollary. Minnie Bruce Pratt in Crime Against Nature narrates how bias over her lesbianism caused her to lose contact with her children. That is a fact, hard as a steel door or a rushing pavement.

The poetics of urgency demand authors go up against what actually happened, even if what happened makes less sense than versions they can imagine, even if what happened has protruding edges that never quite tamp down. Nonfiction narrows the hugeness of the chaotic world to fit on the page; the poetics of urgency require we retain whatever was most important. It is, to rephrase D’Agata, a truth that is necessarily also an accuracy, a truth others besides the author may have lived—others who would likely ask for authors to respect their reality. The poetics of urgency do not implicate only women, though this zodiacal sign may be in ascendance now for women a bit more often.

I know, of the story I related here, that I made it out of those cars. I’m still trying to understand the moment of grabbing the door handle, the jump. It’s embarrassing, to have sat in that NOW room with blood and oil and grass staining me, and it fits poorly with what I’d like to think I know of myself. I’d like to say I bravely hitchhiked to NOW meetings and not that I sat there looking absurd and unable to see myself. But there, in those inexorable stains, the real story begins.

Susanne Antonetta (Suzanne Paola)’s most recent book, Inventing Family, a memoir and study of adoption, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. Awards for her writing include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Pushcart prize, and others. She is also coauthor, with Brenda Miller, of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, Seneca Review and many anthologies. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband and son.

Artwork by Gabrielle Katina