Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact

April 18, 2012 § 12 Comments

A guest post from Jill Talbot, author of Loaded: Women and Addiction and the brand new Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, and St. Lawrence University faculty member.  Talbot argues in this response to the truth-in-nonfiction debate that we all “slip across the border at times,” and we are pleased to offer her detailed and honest account here.  Later this week, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will discuss where he disagrees with Talbot, and — we hope — an excellent and honest dialogue will ensue.


By Jill Talbot

Four years ago, Charles Blackstone and I published The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008). In my introduction to that genre-defying anthology, I wrote this:

A couple of years ago, I sent a piece that I had written as an essay, then later revised into a story, to a journal. The editors’ response: “This appears to be creative nonfiction rather than short fiction though we do welcome nonfiction submissions.” Clearly, I hadn’t fooled anyone. A year later, when I had a creative nonfiction piece that I thought worked quite well for the journal, I sent it to the nonfiction editor. Response: “Thank you for your fiction submission. We felt the characters weren’t really developed and thought you might move the part of the husband leaving to the opening of the story.”

A few months ago, someone I follow on Twitter RTd a submission call from Matter. And in perusing their submission guidelines, I came across this:

From Matter Press: Please be sure to submit in the correct category; we’ve been receiving several fiction submissions in the creative nonfiction category.

I copy/pasted this border-patrol warning and sent it to Charles to get his reaction, as we remain invested in what we now simply call “friction.” Within minutes, Charles wrote back: “It’s sad that editors are still forcing writers to submit, literally, to genre. If the publication claims to want all forms of prose, why even sift them like that?”

Another excerpt from my introduction to Friction:

Recently, I received an e-mail rejection from a nonfiction journal. Reason: “Your piece reads like fiction, and our readers would read it as such. We do not accept unsolicited fiction.” I thought I had submitted to a creative nonfiction journal. And while the piece was indeed a personal essay, I had employed the third person “She” in order to examine my own actions from a few years back. Experimental, sure, but (1) I wanted to evoke some kind of distancing, my persona’s refusal to claim her own actions’ effect, and (2) I wasn’t anticipating any discrimination for what the editors assumed was subversive genre swapping. These editors proclaimed what they represented as a protection of their readership. As if to say, we can’t have our readers out there reading a piece in our journal as if it’s fiction. Even if we tell them it’s CNF, they’ll read it as fiction. Thanks for submitting.

After receiving Charles’s reply, I began looking up submission guidelines, noting that most, yes, have separate submission categories for fiction and nonfiction.

Yet Hotel Amerika, edited by David Lazar, limits its submission guidelines to the following:

           We welcome submissions in all genres of creative writing, generously defined.

In 2009, HA published a Transgenre Issue (7.2), noting a “focus on work that explodes traditional boundaries of generic convention.”

Another publication, DIAGRAM, includes the usual suspects on its submissions manager: poetry, fiction, essay, image, and–wait for it–indeterminate. I like the freedom here, that a writer can write a piece without knowing what it is or is trying to be, it just is. A nice nod from the DIAGRAM staff–a get out of genre free card, which is helpful if you’re caught crossing the border without a passport (and what is that in our current literary climate?  A disclaimer in the preface?   The words, “a novel,” somewhere on the front cover?)

At the end of every creative nonfiction course I teach, I require students to submit an essay to a journal of their choice.  I point them to Essay Daily, Ander Monson’s blog that has a blog list titled:  Homes for the Essay.  I tell my students to begin by perusing these journals, such as River Teeth, Quarterly West, Witness, ones that definitely accept nonfiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one line from that Friction introduction: “If I make anything up, it’s still true.”

That line is followed by the following section:

A student of mine had come back from Christmas break after a stint in rehab. When James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was shot down by, my student came to my office after a discussion in my nonfiction class of the ramifications of the media maelstrom. “I actually read Frey’s book while I was in rehab,” he told me, something I’m sure he didn’t want to share in class, which was unfortunate, though fair. After all, wouldn’t an addict in a rehabilitation facility be an expert on the truth of Frey’s foray into the addict mind? My student told me that the book had been kind of a passed-around contraband in rehab, because Frey so vehemently disparages the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the foundation of most rehabilitation facilities. My student told how he’d borrowed the book from a fellow drunk, read it in two days, and passed it on—and so on it went. He said, “My counselor said that all the AA old-timers say Frey’s gonna go back to drinking. He’s gonna crash.” To me, well to all of us the student told, this was the debate about Frey’s book. “I mean here we all were locked up for twenty-eight days, and Frey essentially says that you have a choice: drink or don’t. And he hasn’t. At least that’s what he claims in the book. But none of that matters to me. What I took from it was I had a choice, too.”

Actually, it was me who read that in rehab, and I attributed my experiences and what my counselor told me to a student. At the time, I wasn’t ready to admit rehab, and I didn’t think it would serve the anthology well to have an introduction written by someone who had lost her way in such a way.

Last semester, a student wrote a nature essay in which she admitted to fictionalizing in an essay about the lurking of elk as a metaphor for unrequited love.  A beautiful line, “Like an elk hiding a few feet away under the cover of dense trees, we can hide how closely we think we are to those we love.” The other day I e-mailed her in hopes of getting her perspective on two of her workshops, one in which I encouraged her to fictionalize (shape?) and one in which I did not allow her to (invent?).  My subject line:  Remind Me.

There was a lot in the elk piece that I tried to fictionalize, including how many people were there.  The girl that Ben started dating didn’t actually spend the night at the cabin with us, but I claimed she did.  I said that I “watched her catch his eye” which was true when we were home, but I continue to say, “lighting up his face as she unexpectedly burst into the dark sky.”  Even though she wasn’t there, you told me this worked well with the piece because he had the same reaction of excitement and awe at the fireworks as he did when he was with her.

During her next essay workshop, one about a night when she was fourteen and her father stopped at a bar, the Wig Wam, while taking her back to her mother’s house, she fictionalized the name of a bartender and the name of a man at a bar, and neither rang true. Those names she had assigned glaring like neon signs in a bar window—too bright and shaky.  At fourteen, I told her, you’re scared and in a strange place—you’re more likely to remember how the girl bartender looked, how the man at the bar seemed to you.  “You can’t just make stuff up,” I told her and the class, “It’s false, and it reads so.”  She looked at me in fierce frustration, squinted her eyes even.  In that same e-mail, she recalled the workshop:

 Right, originally I tried naming the girl bartender and I had also made up the man’s name, because, being the subject of the piece, I figured that the readers would want a way to hold on to him somehow.  But you told me not to fictionalize the name (leave it as “the man from the bar”) because it added to the part about being okay to not remember his name.

The respective lines in the now-published essay read:

“When he tells you you’ll only be there for ten minutes, he swears. Walk  inside and choose a seat near the pretty bartender who is the only other girl  in the place.”

 “When you don’t answer, he’ll look down into his foggy glass filled with something brownish, and when he tells you his name, know that it’s okay to forget.”

Those are true.  On both levels:  experientially and artistically.

Last semester, during a weekly meeting of The Laurentian, the St. Lawrence University student literary magazine, the senior editors for the genres (art, poetry, fiction, nonfiction) gave their submission/acceptance reports, I noted that the students kept using the phrase “nonfiction story.” After the meeting, I approached the Editor, asking her to please clarify with the staff the distinction between story and essay.

“Oh, she said. I’ve never thought about that. Is that the official word for nonfiction?”

I suddenly felt like a guard, standing watch to ensure that no one came into the wrong country, as if by insisting on certain signifiers such as “story” and “essay,” we won’t need that 2,000 mile genre fence. I kept it simple and said, “Yes.” Then she said, “I always use the term ‘pieces’ when referring to any prose genre.” I concurred, told her that I use that term anytime I teach a “slippery” work. Pam Houston’s pieces come to mind.

Not long ago, I had dinner with Mark Slouka, our Viebranz Visiting Writer and 2011 recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the art of the essay for Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (Graywolf Press). We’re swapping student stories (rather the stories we tell about their attempts at storytelling), and he tells of a young woman who visited his office struggling with her short story assignment. She wanted to write a story based upon a house fire during her childhood. The details were fascinating and Slouka suggested she write it in a “personal essay voice.” I spoke up: “Why not suggest she write an essay?” Slouka: “Right. I mean, what’s the difference. We all fictionalize.”

Here are some more examples from my memoir manuscript in progress:

My family treats alcohol as if it doesn’t exist, which reminds me of a boyfriend who told me, “Your family needs to drink.”

Actually, it was my cousin’s wife, but I didn’t like the clunkiness of that description in the sentence. And I thought the narrative of the boyfriend saying it would resonate an outsider making an observation.

Finally, I had his voice in my head on nights I’d sit on the back porch, drinking glass after glass of chardonnay and listening to his accusation on the phone that it was I, not him, who wanders, who moves from place to place and can never settle down long enough to establish consistency.

Actually, I was drinking red wine during those months, mostly Big House Red, though my writing self has become loyal to one-grape, and that grape is chardonnay.

The other day, Indie and I were at the university library circulation desk, where I was checking on a missing copy of a Joyce Carol Oates book.

Actually, I was checking out a faculty laptop and returning two Linda Hutcheon books on metanarratives and postmodern theory, but while I was writing this essay, Charles was reading Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her husband’s death, so the author was in my mind.

I told her I remember my mother taking me once to a lake outside her home town in East Texas when I was about her age and that once, I dated a guy in college who tried, impatiently, to teach me to cast, fly-fishing style.

Actually, that guy was during my graduate school years, but a college self, in my mind, connotes a younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements. And the guy was very, very patient. I was the impatient one.

I was always staring out windows in school, wondering what might be going on beyond where I was and what I knew. I’d watch scenes play out in secret, the lone girl clutching a folder to her chest as she hurried to class, the stone house across the street, the choir teacher’s husband bringing her lunch.

Actually, the choir teacher’s husband came to eat with her in the school cafeteria, and my friends and I would laugh at his bright green pants, naming him “Mr. Green Jeans.” It’s a memory that stands out to me, but I needed to place him where I could view him through a window, not across a junior high cafeteria in green pants, where he will always remain in my mind.

Charles has been telling me for years that what I write is fiction.

One more, you’ll note the “Actually,” is part of the writing here:

Maybe it’s because I’ve never written about the moment I knew he was gone. I’ve written an entire book around it, eschewing that indelible scene of one morning and instead focusing the lens on its prologue: the patterns and the choices that preceded, might have precipitated, or the epilogue of emptiness ushered in after it, that one line in chapter sixteen, describing the tree in my front yard in winter, its “branches spread across the snow” that reminded me of “reaching for nothing.” Actually, that night, sitting on the front porch with wine and my despair hours into Indie’s sleep, it was the shadows of those empty branches splayed across the blank canvas of the snow that unsettled me. That moment’s stillness was a suspension, a precarious scene with the weight of all my wine shivering against such a delicate portrait.

Jack Kerouac wrote in a letter: “the details are the life of any story.” And since I’m writing my own life, I control the details, and I’ve fictionalized my personal history. Who hasn’t (in writing and at cocktail parties)? But where does personal history become fictional story?

One final anecdote, I promise, and this from a cocktail party (where I’m sure I fictionalized myself in more than one way during the course of the evening). When a colleague, from The Czech Republic, found out what I teach at St. Lawrence, he laughed, “I always think it’s amusing that the English word, nonfiction, is a definition in the negative. It’s NOT fiction, that’s it. So what does that mean?” Well, I asked, what is it in Czech? “The literature of fact.”

I’m not addressing here Alex Heard’s screed against David Sedaris’s “exaggerations.”  Nor John D’Agata’s “facts.”  Nor the ways in which writers have been excoriated for falsified events, personas.  What I am addressing, perhaps, is:  Don’t we all, fiction and nonfiction writers alike, sneak across the border now and then?

Are we required to declare at the crossing?   Or are we all, a little bit country, a little bit that other country?

There are many countries here when you consider all the boundaries that are drawn and redrawn, shaped and shifted.

I’m reminded of a line from Slouka’s “Eclogue”:

There is no map–read as you may, write what you will.

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§ 12 Responses to Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact

  • Thanks for starting this respectful debate, Dinty–and thanks to Jill for beginning in such a thoughtful way. For me, one of the joys of writing nonfiction is the very restrictiveness of a commitment to factual accuracy. Like writing within the constraints of the sonnet form, that commitment can push us toward even greater creativity. In the debates on these issues up to this point, I’ve been continually frustrated by claims that somehow aesthetic truth trumps factual truth or that the two are mutually exclusive or incompatible, or that there’s only one aesthetic strategy possible for moments when facts don’t cooperate with an effect we want. If that student had worked with the fact that there wasn’t really an elk there, but brought it into the essay as a metaphor she could then explore–that would have been a great nonfiction strategy.

    A bigger–or different–question that comes up for me here is, why are we writing essays that read like fiction? (And I include myself here). The label “nonfiction,” as we all know, is woefully impoverished. It also seems to have the effect of tying us to the thing we’re not, as though fiction has rejected us and we hope that by making our essays more like their stories, fiction will somehow take us back in. I don’t want the license that fiction affords–the license to make things up. I want to write nonfiction, which for me means writing toward the aesthetic truths that can arise in surprising ways from a commitment to factual truth.

    • Very well said, Tracy. I, too, enjoy working within the constraints of truth (or at least, the truth that exists in my mind–what I see as truth). Molding that, shaping that, while remaining true to the story is a welcome challenge.

  • Of my non-fiction piece, an editor wrote, “This needs a better ending.” Well, I wanted a better ending, too.

  • Elizabeth says:

    “The literature of fact”: I love that so much more than “non-fiction.”

    Thank you for launching this much-needed conversation. I agree with Tracy Seeley that part of the problem is opposing aesthetic truth and factual truth. I also challenge myself to write within the confines of factual truth. I pay attention to those moments where I’m tempted to embellish and ask myself what really going on. When I can’t shake a desire to fictionalize, I write about that and often find deeper aesthetic and factual truths.

    I wrote a bit about some of this last year when the Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea scandal erupted.

    I look forward to more conversation about the literature of fact here.

  • […] Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact ( […]

  • […] Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact ( […]

  • […] April 20th, 2012 § Leave a Comment  Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to Jill Talbot’s blog essay, Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact. […]

  • […] in fairness, sometimes we writers bring that problem upon ourselves. In TWENTY-SOMEWHERE, the 3 main characters are based on me and two of my best friends. This does […]

  • […] “What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth,” part of a worthy exchange with Jill Talbot on the Brevity […]

  • I really appreciate the transparency of Jill’s article. Memoir is challenging – and I think it is effective as creative non-fiction. There are so many considerations in telling one’s story.

    I’m writing mine in first person beginning when I am seven. I was a very mature seven and had life experiences not everyone had. My story is about healing from incest. I have to choose words and write conversations. I didn’t have a tape recorder, so I am writing approximations.

    My story was filled with a lot of abuse, for many it may seem almost too much or too challenging. I have to balance how much I tell, how many details – enough or too graphic? I have some family members alive, and they try to hide their past, so do I share names or not?

    I mention my foray into the occult – I have to respect vows of secrecy, and not share full rituals, but need to share enough to let people know I know what I am talking about.

    I am a Christian now. My book is graphic, uses swear words my parents used, is respectful of the occult groups I belonged to for they saved my life until I could come to a place where I could be healed. My book is not one particular genre, and parts will appeal to some, other parts won’t appeal to them. All I can do is write true to the story.

    Also, this is the second time I’ve tried to write my story, and as I mature and heal, my perception changes. I suspect that memoir writers grow and change as they write their stories. I suspect that ten years from now the same scenes would evoke different feelings as the memories are tinted by life experiences.

    This article is a keeper for me and I appreciate the depth of sharing.

  • Ben Quick says:

    One reason to stick to the facts, particularly in prose journeys that meander through controversial or politically charged landscapes: You will be challenged by those who perceive your words as threats to power. Quite likely, these holders of power will have access to larger forums and suffer none of your moral dilemmas. When you are charged with lying or exaggerating or ignorance of complex issues, your only defense will be a decisively stronger grasp of empirical evidence related to the integrity of the representation of any element of your work in dispute.

  • […] other interesting perspectives check out Jill Talbot’s Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact and Dinty Moore’s response, What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth, as well as […]

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