Friday I attended a robust seminar on the opportunities and pitfalls of literary nonfiction. I’ve visited these rooms before: my graduate degree is in creative nonfiction. The “contract with the reader” spiel is deeply ingrained in my personal protocol.
The presenters: Lauren Kessler, Mary Roach, Erik Larson and Ted Conover, were stalwart practitioners of the conscious and deliberate choice to keep the “f word” at bay. And by “f” word, of course I mean fiction. The dark side. The lie that tells the truth truer.
Oppositional to this stance is the “in service of the emotional truth” argument, where embroidery and embellishment, as well as the construct of composite characters and wrinkled chronology in the design of creative nonfiction serve to build the story-telling arc, duping the reader into a more absolute truth than he might get by following the real trail of breadcrumbs. But then, that’s why God invented fiction, right? Let’s discuss.
Fiction writers have a history of being suspicious of memoirists, biographers and creative nonfiction writers who fondle the truth with the tools of fictional story-telling. Especially since it’s long been acknowledged that nonfiction sells quicker than does literary fiction. My two years at Antioch LA were replete with incendiary debate about this:
CNF writer: Okay, so I didn’t exactly have a sink full of dirty dishes on the day in which the scene is set, I did the next day…so what’s the big deal?
F writer: The big deal is that you’re lazy. You have a point to make, and you bend the truth to make it. Work a little harder to make that point and stay on the side of truth, or make a different point.
As a person who’s written plenty of both types of prose, I can say that I’ve straddled the fence on this for years. Reason being, both types of writing rely heavily on narrative fashioning. I’m not talking about straight journalism or biography here, I mean the more blurry-edged land of literary nonfiction: memoir, essay, and immersion journalism. Because the lens we use is flawed with our own sensibilities, we remember dialogue, scene and events through a multi-textured filter. It’s impossible, as human beings, not to have at least a modicum of an agenda as we process our lives. So we take this flawed raw material, and then put it in the narrative machine to make it into a story. And that’s the point at which we have to develop a serious bullshit meter for solipsism.
But it ain’t that easy. Part of the addictive magic inherent in writing is getting these little peeks at God. Or what you think is God at the moment of the witnessing. This process often leads the creative nonfiction writer away from “what about” to “what if.” The dark side. Staying firmly fixed in “what about” demands an enormous amount of discipline. It can be a huge buzz kill. “What if” is the sexy idea that comes a calling, and in fact, is one of the reasons most of us do what we do. It’s the line of flight—the sweet spot, the muse.
The night before this seminar, I went to Arts and Lectures where Suzan-Lori Parks regaled us with her personal journey to “entertaining all of her far out ideas.” Turns out, she was derailed as a high school student. Dissuaded from literary pursuits because she was a crappy speller. Now, I’m not taking anything away from this woman’s delightful performance—she had the audience in her palm, but, she drifted into a somewhat (I believe) unconsciously dismissive stance as she submerged into the “we writers are freaks, God bless us” space. I know that space, and I’ve been playing that card for years. We are often at odds with the normative world when we try and squeeze some juice from society’s value machine. It becomes a compensatory thing, this alignment against the corporations, the man, the rules of the road. But part of her back-story was that she briefly turned to science as a “fall back.” Her anecdote was embroidered with the vision of her (she’s a dread-locked, free-spirited, hand-gesturing speaker) having to suffer through chemistry lab: the white jacket, the goggles, etc… The audience at this point was supposed to be appalled at how an off-the-mark, insensitive comment from a high school teacher nearly caused her to live a life completely opposite of the creative, fabulous literary one she eventually pursued.
Just so happens that I had a companion at this event. My new squeeze: a chemist. A man who chose to be a scientist and a teacher (another profession Parks briefly dissed during Q & A), and is in no way the embodiment of the “type” she was setting up as the antithesis of everything fabulous.
I really don’t know if I would have been uncomfortable had it not been for the fact that I’d dragged the unsuspecting boyfriend to this event only to have him glimpse a little bit at the underside of my world. Would I have even acknowledged that slip into solipsistic lip service if I didn’t have him as a filter?
Words are powerful. Stories are powerful. Wordsmithing carries a certain amount of accountability. We are treated to, and like to think that we offer, occasionally, those peeks at God. But sometimes we’re merely offering peeks at our own untended, unmitigated and unevolved dark sides. Fictional or not.