Sunday, February 11, 2007

embroidery, embellishment and maybe a little arrogance?

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.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

wedding expansiveness to minimalism

My second love, after writing, is anthropology. The cultural kind, not the digging for bones kind. I remember taking a class once on indigenous tribes, and I wrote a paper comparing the warring aspects of these tribes to modern day football games. I was trying on objectivity, divorcing myself from editorial content, staying with the facts, only the facts.

I like this sort of dispassioned writing: analyzing trends, customs, practices and norms from a sort of scientific perspective. Keeping emotion and judgment out of it. I explored this type of writing through the lens of fiction when I practiced minimalism. "Recording angel," was the way we put it in Tom Spanbauer's class. Get as small as you can. Search for God via a trail of inquiry that propels itself by observation, not subjective discernment.

My day job, conversely, is all about agenda. It's an overt attempt to connect emotionally with the customer by massaging the senses. There is a much more brash and expansive approach to this writing, psychologically. You want to be where the action is. Finger on the pulse. Resonance and Zeitgeist.

The process by which I create "successful" ad copy refutes everything I strive for in my art. It's goal-driven and chirpy. It asks something of the audience. The relationship this sort of copy has with objects is inverse to the relationship objects have with minimalism. Simply presenting objects is the way into the subconscious in minimalistic fiction. In ad copy, the subconscious is played as a way to gain perceived value for a particular object.

On the subject of popular culture's relationship with advertising, The Oregonian's TV columnist Peter Ames Carlin had a spot-on harangue on the hype and crusade displayed by Sunday's Super Bowl extravaganza.

Advertising is an amazing reflection of culture. An anthropological study without parallel. Art, if you follow this hypothesis, could be viewed as study of the anti-culture. A response to the emotional whacking we sign up for just by getting out of bed each morning.

My own personal belief is that to be a healthy member of this world, you need a firm foot in both camps. You need to understand, and, yes, immerse yourself in, to a certain extent, the normative playground. But you also have to know how and when to pull yourself out of the frenzy. Become an anthropologist. Think for yourself. In order to do that, it's become increasingly essential for people to read fiction and poetry, see plays, go to the galleries, and, especially, pursue some sort of creative engagement of their own.

Friday, February 02, 2007

committing to a romance


I have a manuscript to write. And here I am, blogging instead of writing it. Yeah, yeah, I know.

Here’s the thing: I have the emotional infrastructure to pull off commitment to a project, but the attention span of a hummingbird. Bright colors? Fragrant interjections? I’m the queen of short ‘n sweet. Which is why I have such a patchwork career life, I ‘spose.

This temperament (or dysfunction) works well for me on one level with the historical romance project, in that there is this dovetail relationship between research and narrative development. I can’t seem to go more than two sentences without having to look up something, or make sure this building or that monument existed in the landscape upon which I’ve built the scene. But the “romance” element of this project requires digging in my heels and staying in one place until I’ve generated some sort of resonance. And I tend to run away from resonance, damn it!

Ugh. It's one of those art-and-life conundrums!


Thursday, February 01, 2007

freelancing and the dangers of deadline joie de vivre

The life of a freelancer can be a little Beat the Clock at times—particularly at COB on deadline day. It’s a little like preparing a Thanksgiving meal: you gather, prep and cook, everything motoring along, until you realize that all the side dishes are ready, but the thermometer in the turkey leg reads 125º. Or you forgot cranberry sauce. Or, oops, you just dropped the dang apple pie. There it is, on the floor in smooshy clumps.

That’s when you reach into your back pocket for two things: experience and faith. Experience: you bring out more crackers, cheese and wine until your turkey’s cooked. And, because you always have extra pies, one less is no big deal—or decide on plan B: canned fruit for dessert! (Everyone’s so full after the meal it doesn’t matter anyway—especially if you’ve kept the wine glass full.) Joining experience is that little voice that cries out, it’s all good! (i.e. faith), despite evidence to the contrary.

And so it is with deadline day. One thing experience tells you is that the clock ain’t gonna stop, and last minute crises will occur, necessitating the Murphy’s Law-esque formula: divide the time you think you have by two, and subtract 25 minutes from that. Then, you call in favors from your muse. The lightning bolt of insight or the Good Transitions Fairy.

I now have several monthly writing gigs, each with its own indelible deadline. The last half of any given month is a crazy juggling act, and the first half is crash-and-burn time. And like many freelancers, I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to the chemicals that arise from frantic, last minute ace-in-the-hole-seeking. Trouble is, the excitement raises the bar on joie de vivre expectation, and makes the quotidian workhorse of slowly tapping out a novel almost insufferable.

I guess what I’m admitting to here is that unless I mitigate the mania with a little bootstrap discipline, those novels are going to grow cobwebs in my hard drive. I've got to start pulling meat off the carcass and make some turkey soup. Or something.