Why the MFA Was the Right Choice for Me

July 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

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Jayme Russell

Jayme Russell adds another helpful perspective on the MFA as Calling Card discussion:

Although Emily Smith’s piece “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin Haworth addressed most of my concerns in their own posts about why students should consider fully funded and low residency programs. In all three of the posts, non-traditional students and students struggling financially were mentioned. I thought it might be pertinent to give the point of view of a non-traditional student who recently graduated with both an MA an MFA in creative writing.

My first day of as an undergraduate, I couldn’t walk through the classroom door. I was a twenty-year old single mom without a job, without financial support, and without any real direction. I walked back to my car and cried. The next day, I went back and walked into the classroom. I had no other choice. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing, which was the only job I could get in the small West Virginia town where I lived. It wasn’t a career I could stay in forever, and the paychecks did not cover my living expenses.

I naturally gravitated toward an English degree and flourished thanks to many wonderful professors. I scheduled my classes around my son’s preschool time. I studied for hours after he fell asleep. I got my BA and am very proud of that. I also got into debt. It was unavoidable for me. I had no support. No scholarships. No job. No job interviews. I couldn’t even get a job on campus. I had the choice between putting myself into a hard situation, going into debt, or do nothing at all.

Dinty briefly touches on the problems of the educational financial system when he says “Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well.” However, none of the blog posts address the fact that undergraduate students with debt can use their time in graduate school to forbear loans a little longer, in order to gain more experience before going onto the job market. I used my time in graduate school not as a time to go further into debt but a time to help me get out of it.

Emily notes that she could either get an MFA or grope blindly. I did not feel like I had the choice to grope blindly, waiting to see if I got a job when I was getting absolutely no response to job applications. I was already “saturated” in debt and, as a recent graduate, had no job experience whatsoever. I had no experience. I decided to apply to MFA programs and MA programs in Creative Writing. They would allow me to write, which is what I wanted time to do, and teach, which I wanted to learn how to do.

I paid application fees. I paid for the GRE. I got into an MA creative writing program. I wanted a job. I wanted to have a flexible schedule, so I could spend as much time with my son as possible. I wanted to write. My MA gave me all of those things. In the end, I graduated with a better understanding of the world of academia and the world of writing. I graduated and was very proud of the work that I had completed. I planned to write and teach the following year. That didn’t happen.

I didn’t write. I was teaching, but for such a low wage that it was hard to get by. I was left anxiously wondering if I would have a job the next semester. By this time I loved teaching, yet the instability of the job made me so anxious that I could not continue as an adjunct. I applied to the MFA not for prestige, but for stability and freedom.

I got into an MFA program. I wrote more than I ever had before. Workshop gave me confidence, support, and feedback. After graduating, I finally had a few pieces accepted by print publications. My submissions still get rejected a lot, and I didn’t get on an automatic book or academic job. The MFA didn’t solve my problems, but it taught me to be a better writer, it introduced me to a diverse cohort of writers, gave me two university jobs, and helped me to get the position that I hold now. I don’t make an extremely large amount of money, but I am slowly paying off my student loan debt. It feels almost insurmountable at times, but I still made the right decision to pursue these degrees.

That is not to say that I haven’t felt shut down as a young female writer in certain writing environments. I have. I think it is important to note that in Emily’s original post she related an incident in which an older male writer did not continue a conversation because she was simply seeking her BFA and not an MFA. I’m not sure why this particular writer was so rude, but Emily’s age and gender made me think that more was happening than she expressed. When people are not taken seriously, it is so often as much about gender, age, race, sexuality, etc. as qualifications.

I’ve seen students not taken seriously by other students, teachers, and visiting writers for so many reasons. A female writer friend of mine was told in workshop that her sentences were too simple. Also, she needed to write literary fiction, not young adult novels. At times, I feel as though I personally haven’t been taken seriously because of my gender and age. As a woman writing about violence, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write about certain subjects. I’ve received the written comments: “You don’t know what you are talking about.” I’ve also been laughed at by a visiting writer for expressing my interest in obtaining a career in academia. Most, but not all, of these things have been said and done by white male students. This is a problem that is constantly being battled against in the literary world, and elsewhere.

The truth is that not everyone you will meet in the (writing) world wants to help and support you. There is competition. Not everyone will take time to talk to you about your work. Not everyone has the best advice, or constructive criticism, or patience, or kindness. Some do.

For me, getting three degrees and continuing to write, even when it is hard, has been so rewarding. It has made me the person I am now. I am educated. I am willing to stand up for my own thoughts. My financial situation and the negativity of others have not stopped me from doing what I have wanted and needed to do. However, my hard work is not over. I have a BA, an MA, and an MFA, but no calling card.


Jayme Russell received her M.A. in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame. Her work can be found in Black Warrior ReviewPANK, Tenderloin, Tiny Donkey, and elsewhere. For more information on her work and writing process visit her website.

A Review of Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick

July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments

51yB4df7wgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By e.v. de cleyre

A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.

Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”

The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.

Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”

Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”

Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”

Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”


e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

When time travel isn’t possible, make a tiny roar

July 18, 2016 § 5 Comments

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Keema Waterfield

A guest post from Keema Waterfield:

Recently Hillary Clinton offered a personal farewell to The Toast, a website that, among other things, offered a safe haven for women-folk writing and talking about the intersection of literature and women-folk related things (e.g. everything). In her toast to The Toast, Mrs. Clinton encouraged forlorn writers, readers, and contributors mourning its loss to continue to, “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you… And if the space you’re in doesn’t have room for your voice, don’t be afraid to carve out a space of your own.”

Can I tell you something? Mrs. Clinton’s words fell on me like an ice bath during a climate-change induced mid-summer heatwave.

As a new mother, I sometimes lie awake at night overwhelmed by the odds my daughter faces in a country that still struggles to do justice by its most vulnerable. It happens all the time: victims of spousal abuse, rape, gun violence, childhood trauma and gender nonconformity and inequality, all are regularly treated like mewling kittens and swept under the rug by a culture that is discomfited by their cries. The earnest are so uncomfortable to behold.

A few special corners of the Internet make a space for those voices, and The Toast was one of them. The Toast welcomed writers of the irreverent, the raucous, the thought-provoking, and the visionary. It carved out a space for our manifold voice to manifest. Now The Toast is gone and despair seems too small a word for the loss.

It is easy to feel voiceless in that dark, lonely place under the rug, particularly when you are not rich or famous and you don’t have a Twitter following in the thousands. But I keep thinking of Mrs. Clinton’s urging: “Speak your opinion more fervently in your classes if you’re a student, or at meetings in your workplace. Proudly take credit for your ideas. Have confidence in the value of your contributions.”

When the Senate failed to make even the most basic gun reform after the Orlando shootings I huddled in bed with my five-month-old daughter for days before Tweeting:

When I was 3 a man held a gun to my head with his pants around his ankles. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence

For an hour after I posted that message my heart raced. I alternated between rolling up in a blanket, shaking, and sitting with my face pressed to the window fan. I hovered anxiously over the toilet, waiting to vomit. Then I deleted the tweet and curled up around my sleeping baby, exhausted, but magically cured of my post traumatic flu. I was relieved that I’d saved myself the humiliation of sharing that horrible, bald, truth so…truthfully.

I don’t aspire to serve as the face or voice of a cause, particularly not a heartbreaking and dark one like childhood sexual trauma and gun violence. And I don’t have enough of a following on social media to make taking a stand worth the anxiety, right? I’ve written a memoir that touches on my experience and, recently, my lyrical essay “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky” appeared in Brevity. It is enough, I think, to have addressed it in a literary format, with context.

Still, after I deleted the message I struggled with the urge to speak up, to say something, all through the following day. Too rapey, I thought. Too raw. Too real. Too political. I don’t want to be a “victim”. It is exhausting. It is traumatic. In real life I am not all day, every day, a victim. I don’t want to center myself inside that heavy rhetoric forevermore.

I am also dead tired of the silencing and marginalization of victims. I worry that every silence increases the cultural pressure of repression by tacitly accepting that it is agreeable to be silent.

In her 2011 Rumpus essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay responded to a report on the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl that used language sympathetic toward 18 rapists and one distraught town, but barely touched on the victim. Because the truth is, real victims are hard to look at. We are more comfortable when their edges are blurred, softened, dramatized. Artistic license makes violence palatable.

“I am troubled by how we have allowed intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence,” Gay wrote. She suggested that we find new ways of rewriting rape that, “restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities.” That’s a hard one too. Take away the crush-worthy investigators and their personal stories from Law and Order: SVU and you have an unbearably painful show about gross violence.

The struggle is real: I don’t want to be a victim. I am a victim.

We badly need to rewrite the language of atrocity, repression, race, gender, trauma and yes, even hope and happiness, to look on these experiences honestly. Simply. Directly. Unflinchingly.

My silence won’t change the fact that when anyone dies at gunpoint, I am a victim again. When rape goes apologetically unpunished, I am a victim again. I fear my silence would mean I’ve accepted that those hurts are agreeable.

I do not accept that those hurts are agreeable. I’ve been silenced enough by the cultural expectation of not making other people uncomfortable with my trauma. Who do I hurt if I speak up when the need arises? Who do I help? What would happen if everyone quit keeping the peace in favor of saying out loud this is the violence you prefer not to see happening in your midst to your most vulnerable. You must not look away.

The night after I deleted that first Tweet, the sit-in on the Senate House floor turned into a slumber party and I couldn’t be silent anymore. I Tweeted again:

At 3 y/o a man held a gun to my head to keep me in line. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence #NoBillNoBreak

I couldn’t stay silent. I regret that I let my fear of being too rapey stop me from being more direct. I wish I could have gone forward in time to read this essay to help myself through the process. But if that were possible then time travel would be possible, and I wouldn’t waste time writing about being a victim now, I’d go back and make sure that particular trauma never landed me in this quagmire in the first place.

At the time, though, it felt big enough. If two people read it, two people think about it. And that is two more than before. It is a small space I may have carved out, but it’s mine. What’s yours?

The end of The Toast may mean one less forum for sharing our complex and manifold voice, but it doesn’t leave us voiceless. We can carry on the tradition, writers, perhaps even more bravely. Why save our truths for our memoirs or our deathbed confessions? With so many mediums at our fingertips we can continue to carve out space for our voices every single day. We can climb on out from under the rug together and make a tiny roar.

One thousand #tinyroars can’t be silenced.


Keema Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, Smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her work has been published in Brevity, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, The Manifest Station, Understory, and Mason’s Road. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana and is currently at work on a memoir recounting her childhood adventures performing alongside a revolving cast of folk-hippies on the Southeast Alaska folk festival circuit. She can be reached at keema.waterfield@gmail.com or @keemasaurusrex.







The MFA is Not a Calling Card: The Low-Residency View

July 11, 2016 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Kevin Haworth:

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Kevin Haworth

Like other Brevity blog readers, I have been following the thread of conversation this week started by Emily Smith and continued by Dinty W. Moore. As the director of a low-residency MFA program, I have my own investment in this conversation, and a desire to see my students’ experiences represented. And while each of these writers makes salient points about the challenges of an MFA education, both essays fail to speak to the hundreds of low-residency students currently working toward their MFAs with high hopes and great dedication.

Emily Smith contends that “the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.” For low-residency students, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Low-residency students have long had to grapple with the lower cachet that comes with their MFA—something many successful low-residency programs are working against—compared to the star programs of the MFA world. Certainly few low-residency students have ever brandished their MFA and, by virtue of the degree itself, received immediate admittance to wealthy publishing deals or endowed chairs from the gatekeepers that Smith imagines.

And yet each year students pursue low-residency MFA degrees, with the full knowledge that their MFA is not, by itself, a calling card. One reason is that, in some ways, low-residency programs are more responsive to the kinds of populations that need greater representation in the MFA world. Smith talks about the financial burden of application fees; some low-res programs (my program is one example) require no application fees whatsoever. And the fundamental model of a low-residency program is much friendlier to non-traditional students or others who are facing challenges that might make traditional schooling impossible. For older students with lives they can’t uproot, people with full-time jobs they can’t afford to leave, people with medical issues that need regular attention, just to cite a few examples, low-residency programs are the way into an otherwise closed MFA world. Smith suggests, rightly, that many MFA programs represent a level of privilege that not everyone can access. But this is why low-residency programs were created—to provide access for those who, for many different reasons, are not in a position to join a full-time program. By not acknowledging the existence of low-residency programs—for her, MFA seems to mean only full-residency programs—she is erasing many of the same students she is trying to champion.

Rather than a calling card, low-residency students are looking for opportunity. Moore is right in that the days—if they ever existed—in which an MFA was the golden ticket to tenure-track employment and a nice book deal are over. But low-residency students have always known that. Low-residency students who seek those things have always known that their writing and other professional experiences, not their degree alone, will get them there. In recent years, alumni of my program have published, just as examples, a book of poems with an independent, esteemed poetry press; a memoir with a university press; and a series of historical novels with the genre imprint of a large publisher. In this, they are like the overwhelming majority of writers, MFA or not, who publish their books outside the extremely limited world of New York book deals.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the MFA world, low-residency or otherwise. Money is an issue regardless of program. Fundamentally, I agree with Moore that going into deep debt for an MFA program is a problematic equation, simply because it is unlikely that the degree alone—or even the book that might result from it—will earn back that debt. And Moore is right, as he notes at the bottom of his essay, that the low-residency program can represent a very different set of financial concerns. Still, even working full-time jobs, some of my students have to go into debt in pursuit of their degrees. They do so with full knowledge and with an understanding (unlike some full-residency students, I would argue) that writing or teaching is unlikely to fully support them post-degree. But the situation is still problematic. MFA programs should not be contributors to the national crisis around student debt.

There is, however, one area where Dinty and I may disagree. (Full disclosure: he and I edited a book together, but that won’t stop me from arguing with him here.) I don’t think full funding, regardless of program, is the holy grail of making an MFA worth it. That’s because full funding often comes with heavy strings attached. There are a few MFA programs that offer full funding in the form of fellowships, with no work obligations. Those are marvelous and rare. But for the vast majority of MFA programs, “full funding” means “full teaching”—a teaching load equivalent to most tenure-track faculty, at basement wages. And while tuition may be waived, there are typically still student fees, health insurance costs and other semi-hidden expenses. Thus, at many programs, fully funded students still need to go into debt, because the stipends are just too low to make ends meet. (More disclosure: I was fully funded at an excellent MFA program, for which I am grateful. But I had to work as a freelance writer for the entire three years, in addition to my teaching load, to avoid debt.) And if you take ill, or have to drop out of full-time schooling because of any life emergency, you will likely lose your tuition waiver, your job, and your health insurance all at once. Again, I’m not trying to bash fully-funded teaching assistantships—I benefited from one, as have many writers—but Emily Smith seems to suggest that if she had been fully funded to attend Emerson’s program, all her financial questions would have been answered. I don’t think that’s so.

The MFA is not, and never has been, a calling card. And no one funding model is the answer to the deep and persistent questions around money that dog MFA programs. Access, affordability, and post-MFA opportunity are all areas on which programs need to focus more. I believe that most MFA programs, full-res and low-res both, do a great job teaching creative writing to the students who make it into our classrooms. The cliché of MFA programs is that “it’s all about the writing.” But as directors, we need to attend to more than student writing. We need to understand our students’ worries about money and career, and recognize that each individual student’s financial situation, and their professional goals, are as unique as their writing voice.


Kevin Haworth is a 2016 NEA Fellow in Nonfiction and the director of the Carlow international low-residency MFA program. His most recent book is Famous Drownings in Literary History: Essays on 21st Century Jewishness.


The MFA is Not a Calling Card

July 6, 2016 § 47 Comments


Dinty W. Moore

By Dinty W. Moore

We – myself and our brilliant volunteer staff – do not always agree fully with every word posted here on Brevity’s blog, the “info and discussion” arm of our thrice-yearly magazine. Our readers, writers, and bloggers share a variety of opinions on issues of genre, hybridity, publishing, motivation, literary awards, and, no doubt, presidential candidates. Varied viewpoints are healthy and useful.

Emily Smith guest-posted yesterday – The MFA as Calling Card – reminding us how writers of color, LGBT writers, and lower-income writers often face extra barriers when attempting to enter graduate school. Examining this institutional bias is necessary, and under widespread discussion in the MFA world. Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well. As is so often the case, those with the least resources bear the greater burdens.

I do, however, question Ms. Smith’s assertion that “the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.” I think she overstates the case.

We are well past the time when an MFA degree absent a well-published book (or in poetry, perhaps numerous books) would put a candidate on the glide-path to a tenure track job. (We may soon be beyond tenure, but that’s another story.)

And I don’t think, despite numerous protests to the contrary, that literary journal editors look for MFA pedigree when deciding what work to publish, or that we accept work based solely on where the author has previously published. I certainly don’t when choosing for Brevity, and discussion after discussion with other journal editors convinces me that the majority do not do this as well.

Good writing wins out, not resumes or degrees. Am I excited when Abigail Thomas or Sherman Alexie submits a piece to Brevity? Of course, but my excitement is about the same when we publish a new writer, one with no or few previous publications.

The MFA is not a golden calling card for teaching positions, nor is it one for journal publication. This is all the more true now that many of our best and most-provocative literary outlets exist outside of university English departments.  (The list is ever-growing, but here are a few: Guernica, Slice, Literary Mama, Electric Lit, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Waxwing.)

Smith was admitted last year to Emerson’s excellent MFA program, but had to decline because she was not offered funding. That was a wise move on her part. Speaking not in my role as Brevity editor but as someone who has taught undergraduate creative writing for close to thirty years, no one, absent independent financial means, should go into deep debt to earn an MFA degree. I’ve been telling my students this since the very start of my teaching career.*

There are schools that fund everyone who is accepted (like the one in which I currently teach), schools that fund a portion of those admitted, and schools with no graduate assistantship or fellowship funding at all. Avoid the latter, unless you have earned your fortune or were born with wealth in hand.

I well understand the desire to write and be read, and know that a two- or three-year MFA affords a young writer instruction, practice, and peer support. But I believe as well that everything you can find in an MFA can be found elsewhere, at much less cost. There are online courses that are far less expensive since they don’t offer college credit (and thus, don’t have the bloated university overhead.) There are online critique groups as well as groups that meet at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. (It can be hard to find a good one, but they exist.) Literary magazines are almost always open to volunteer readers. Craft books provide much the same instruction you will find in a college classroom.

There is this simple truth: we learn to write better by writing.

Is it easier to find support and garner helpful critique in a well-run MA or MFA program? Yes, usually. Do I wish the programs offered more assistantship money, and enrolled more writers of color, and writers from other under-represented groups? Yes, definitely. Do I wish state legislatures weren’t abandoning state universities, and that administrators weren’t running our schools like assembly lines? Goodness, yes.

But the myth that the MFA is an exclusive calling card, a magic ticket to a select inside group, that it will give you entry into quality literary journals absent excellent writing, that those without the MFA are shunned by eminent literary magazine editors, is harmful to writers, and to the entire literary community. Writing is hard enough.

These hope-crushing concerns are just not true. The MFA is a great opportunity, but less and less valuable as a teaching credential, and not the key to publication, career, or literary acceptance.

Voice, fresh perspective, energetic use of language, crafted sentences, vivid detail: these are the calling cards.

You can print these cards at home.


  • * A brief footnote, after further consideration: my thoughts here are focused on traditional “full-residency” MFA programs and traditional students.  The low-residency MFA is a different equation in most cases, assuming the low-res student is employed during the length of the program, or can handle the tuition and fees through prudent financial planning.

Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity nineteen years ago. He wishes life was easier for everyone in the arts, but somehow it never is.

C.D. Wright Lectures on Writing

June 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

We don’t often publish poetry here, but this is an exception, in tribute to the late C.D. Wright, who taught us all, no matter the genre:

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C.D. Wright

C.D. Wright Lectures on Writing
By Beth Taylor

is a theory, the poet said,
a key tension in life, and art —
the urge to look forward,
toward possibility,
which, in finding it,
is a kind of refuge,
the embrace of comfort,
like coming home
to the warmth and colors,
the particular furniture and clothes
of one’s own life.

This is what writing is, she said,
and any art –
seeking a story in an image
that may be from the past,
or right now in a view,
or a hazy dream –
each a kind of homecoming
once it is found,
rendered anew,
honoring and protecting,
becoming a refuge.

In honor of C.D. Wright,  1949-2016


Beth Taylor is Co-Director of Brown University’s Nonfiction Writing Program and author of The Plain Language of Love and Loss: A Quaker Memoir

Nonfiction as Lens: Another Take on the Truth Question

June 16, 2016 § 12 Comments

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Corinna Cook

By Corinna Cook:

My friend Bridget, at the end of the essay in which I call her Marion, ends up in a tree. Specifically up on some high, thin branch, like a bird. It has to do with the bent-over way she makes music and the frailty of her body, but it also has to do with the way my friendship with Bridget makes me feel like a dumb stump. Though of course I’m not a tree and Bridget isn’t a bird, and her name certainly isn’t Marion. True or false? True, of course. The essay isn’t devious, it’s just dreamy.

But I notice that when something is true, the specter of falsehood is always there at the table, bony mouth already opening, claiming some part of the conversation.

Do binaries always drag their other halves around like this? I don’t know, but I do find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, was interested in related questions. His reflection on autopoiesis led him to the idea of “coded” systems. Every code, for Luhmann, is some kind of binary structure—true/false is just one example—and the code, whatever it is, determines how that system reacts to perturbance.

So if you think of a coded system as a kind of pond, anything you toss in—a stone, a rubber ducky, a copper coin—would make its splash according to truth and falsity (or whatever makes up the pond’s binary structure). That is, a true stone would perturb the glassy surface in one way and a false stone in another, irrespective of size, weight, the arc of the toss, or even prevailing winds.

Same with the ducky and the coin: their splashes in this pond would specifically reflect their truthness and falseness.

True/false, incidentally: that, according to Luhmann, is the code for science. So this must be what’s going on when we focus on the nonfictionality of nonfiction, scrutinizing an essay’s truths, sometimes even clogging conversation with the suspicious, well, does it even count as nonfiction?—though we’ve set out to talk about literature, this question perturbs and thus activates the system of science. Since truthiness is half of a binary code informing a major system, the notion of falsehood kicks in automatically.

But the binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.

Of course, probing and challenging genre boundaries is a valid, even stimulating, exercise. But in nonfiction discourse, this particular line of inquiry often takes over. Why? Maybe because, in Luhmann’s terms, we have a pretty straightforward systems problem: too many activated at once. I think of a cartoon rocketship’s control panel now, odd red lightbulbs blinking out of sync with an attendant overlay of dissonant beeps and bells.

Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?

If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading. Doing so might pacify the science system, soothe and lull it into a state of non-perturbance … allowing us to sidestep, if only temporarily, its true/false binary code.

In other words, as readers, if we have to ask an essay, are you true? Are you true enough to call yourself true? Let’s reorient and also ask that essay: what is the nature of the truth you theorize, or what is the nature of the reality into which you inquire? Or even, what truth do you reveal? And furthermore, what use emerges for your notion of truth?

I enjoy considering nonfiction as a lens like any other to polish and peer through—at any text I wish, discovering what it helps bring into focus—because when discussion of truthiness wears thin, it’s only natural to lower the lens of nonfiction down from the discursive eye and place it back in the tray. It’s quite safe there alongside the feminist lens, the postcolonial lens, and so many others. All are protected from dust, upright in their black velvet slots, like silver-rimmed rows my childhood optometrist kept in his most-opened drawer.

It was, after all, his sculpting of my vision (which is clearer, one…or two?), that revealed to me the architectural precision with which a tree trunk divides into limbs, into branches, and finally into the skyward twigs among which I perceived my friend Bridget, toes curled onto the thinnest perch.


Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently chipping away at a PhD in English/Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her nonfiction appears here and there, including Flyway and Alaska Quarterly Review. She is currently working on a collection of essays about northern sorrows and friendships.

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