Painting the Snake: Ambient Accuracy in Creative Nonfiction

May 29, 2017 § 20 Comments


snakeBy Jan Priddy

The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.

Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.

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More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.

Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.

Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.

Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.

My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.

Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.

It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.

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For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.

It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
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Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXWork MagazineRaven ChroniclesThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.

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Illustration:

Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015

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