August 29, 2016 § 10 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
One of the great privileges and joys of going back to school for an MFA was the unexpected bonus of entering into an entirely new community of people whom I never would have met otherwise, men and women who love to do the same thing I love to do all day, which is to read and write. I had been a newspaper columnist for years, but most of my work has been done in solitude, as much of a writer’s work is done. So the very idea of belonging to this community of writers, this group of strangers, was a bit unnerving at first. Would I be the oldest student? Would my work measure up? Would I embarrass myself on Dance Party Night?
Now a few years after our graduation my twenty fellow matriculating classmates are not only bound together for life by the fact that we shared something that demanded much from us financially and in time spent away from families and jobs – we are also bound together by a communal spirit. This spirit is perhaps best exemplified by an incident that occurred during our second residency.
During our residencies, besides the ubiquitous and dreaded workshops, students were treated to readings and lectures by both permanent faculty and visiting writers. A mainstay of MFA programs, these events are hugely popular among the students. Maybe for each of us, in our secret heart, we are imagining our own selves up there someday.
On this particular day, a lecture was being presented by David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto was due to be published in several months. The buzz among the students was that this lecture was not to be missed. I am not sure how “the buzz” works, but among writers it usually seems to denote some sort of controversy, which at that point in our residency, we are dying for.
It was a packed house as Mr. Shields began his lecture. Just the word Manifesto seemed to signify something promising; something sure to provoke discussion over glasses of red wine in our dorm rooms later that night. We leaned forward as one, pens and notebooks at the ready, nifty note-takers that we are.
Mr. Shields started out riffing on a few notions he had about nonfiction versus fiction, and then about five minutes in, realized he had somehow gone off track from his planned lecture. He began sorting through his notes to find his place, but the papers must have gotten all mixed up, because he kept shuffling them faster and faster. The sound of this panicky paper-shuffling stabbed the deep quiet of the lecture hall for several interminable minutes.
He must have realized at some point that he was wide awake and not dreaming this particular nightmare. At that moment, perspiration began streaming off the top of his head in rivulets. Mr. Shields is completely bald, and the harsh overhead lighting did not help the situation. As the silence lengthened, we in the audience leaned forward as one. We squirmed in our seats. We stared at one another in wide-eyed empathy. We willed him silently to find his place. We have had a similar nightmare.
In the hot, glaring spotlight over the lectern, the stream that poured from his head dripped piteously on his notes, which by now seemed to be hopelessly scrambled. Mr. Shields did not make eye contact. He used the back of his arm to try and staunch the perspiration, but this only served to fling it off him and make room for more. Thus passed several more minutes of dead silence, except for the slap of brow-wiping and the crackle of uncooperative paper.
Then, from the front row, another bald pate rose up and we all breathed out (we had been holding our collective breath). Bennington instructor and essayist Phillip Lopate was holding something out to Mr. Shields – an offering, a white flag. A cloth handkerchief. Phillip Lopate was one of the reasons I had applied to Bennington, and here he was, saving a fellow writer in true distress. Here was a man who could be counted on. Here was a man, maybe the only man in the room, who had a cloth handkerchief. It turned out to be exactly what was needed. After Mr. Shields was able to blot himself dry, his anxiety subsided, and he was able to get his notes in order. He went on to deliver his lecture like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
I like to think of my new community of fellow writers in just this way. I start to panic, and think I am not good enough, or my pages or words won’t order themselves the way I need them to, and I think of Phillip Lopate’s handkerchief. It is a trim white flag, folded away, but at the ready when I need it.
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog. She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.
January 13, 2015 § 5 Comments
A guest blog post (and nifty sketches) from Rebecca Fish Ewan reviewing the recent Poets & Writers ((LIVE)) event in San Francisco:
Why go to a writer’s conference? Isn’t writing an occupation of isolation? Of loneliness? David Shields often quotes David Foster Wallace’s wisdom on loneliness. He did so in Melbourne in 2012 (see Is Writing Better Than Sex?) and again this past weekend in San Francisco at Poets & Writers ((LIVE)), while his friend Caleb Powell joined him on stage looking agitated (This is their collaborative art form … arguing in public).
Wallace had said: “We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.”
Right. The work constructs a bridge, not the actual writer, so why fly from Phoenix to listen to people talk about writing? Isn’t my job to sit alone, diddling my mind, until an orgasm of words spews onto the page? If so, than why go?
To network. To shmooze…oh, who am I kidding…I’m too introverted to even know how to spell schmooze. But I’ve created a book that tells a story that needs to be told…by me…in a hybrid genre: free verse cartoon memoir. It’s sure to sell like hot cakes, if it ever gets published. So, when I spied the announcement in an issue of Poets & Writers, I signed up to go sell my book. To be a book whore. With that in mind, I arrived at the Brava Theater Center early, registered, clipped on my name tag and bee-lined for the darkest corner of the lobby to hide until the event started. Awesome book whore strategy.
Then a stranger asked me to watch her bags while she went to the restroom. From that moment on, I spent the day learning how wrong my reason for being there was. This conference wasn’t about networking. It was about community.
The stranger came back and by the time we took our seats in the theater, my poems and cartoons had made her cry and she had adopted me like a pet. (Good thing, since Vijaya turned out to be way better at telling people what my book is about than I am.) The entire event from start to finish reinforced the expansive quality of human exchange and how crucial it is for being a writer. Or, more importantly, being in a writing community.
The poet Kay Ryan opened with the notion that writing allows her to enter “a larger mind than my own.” Despite admitting “I would never come to this” as an attendee, Ryan acknowledged that even if writers can’t or won’t come to a gathering like Poets & Writers ((LIVE)), they need to know it exists. She read poems that conjured a communal hum, like the resonance of a tuning fork, from the audience. She also made us laugh. With the lyric brevity of a great poet, she set a tone that situated the conference in that sweet spot between levity and seriousness.
The first panel focused on local resources, with Stacey Lewis (City Lights Books), Laura Moriarty (Small Press Distribution), Joyce Jenkins (Poetry Flash), Janis Cooke Newman (The Grotto), and Jason Bayani (Kearney Street Workshop). As a relocated Berkeleyan, I was reminded of the region’s rich resources for writers (and all artists). Growing up in the East Bay, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to go see poets like Ryan read, which is why I never bothered to do it back then. So, anyone in the Bay Area who wants to be a writer, what are you waiting for? As Moriarty noted, this region has “one of the most active literary communities on the planet.” While talking about the specific resources and services their organizations provide, each panelist embodied the conference’s intent. “Our mission is building community through literature,” said Jenkins. “Writing is isolating,” said Cooke Newman, but the panel made clear that in the Bay Area, the life of a writer need not be.
The Savvy Self-Publisher session seemed appealing, until I figured out I probably would never be one. I teach design, so layout doesn’t scare me, but listening to the panel talk about marketing made me hyperventilate. The panelists, Debra Englander (publisher), Ted Weinstein (agent) and Amy Packard Ferro (publicist), made clear that self-publishing is a misnomer. It involves a whole lot more than just uploading a PDF to Lulu. “You need to do your homework,” noted Englander. And you need “good self-awareness,” added Weinstein. You may also need to have multiple personalities, those suited for these occupations: writer, editor, publicist, book designer, event planner, and social media Diva.
Okay, my brain and bladder are full. Time for a pee break.
More tomorrow from Rebecca Fish Ewan.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between and graduate of the creative writing MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University where she teaches landscape history and design, is trying to learn to market her free verse cartoon memoir of her life’s deepest wound. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her family, and makes pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean whenever life permits.
March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
March 9, 2013 § 8 Comments
I am thrilled to report that on Thursday I met my nonfiction idol, Phillip Lopate, and while name-dropping and in the interest of full disclosure, I will also share that David Shields stopped his auditorium reading just to address my friend and me specifically. Fine, so it didn’t happen exactly that way, but since this is both the age of genre-bending and look-at-me social media, it could have happened that way, or it may well have happened that way, or perhaps it even did—in a fictionalized-accounting-of-nonfiction-event-in-pursuit-of-a-higher-truth sort of way. (The higher truth, of course, being that I am special and so are my friends.)
I sat like an excited schoolgirl in the front row with my writing cohort, Nina Gaby, for the I Essay to Be reading of four generations of essayists: Lopate—60s, Shields—50s, Amy Fusselman—40s, and Elena Passarello—30s. Nina and I are disastrous classmates: she, the animated instigator, and I, the giggly sidekick. On my own I can pass for well-behaved, but with her I am a goner—a grown woman with appallingly-little self-control, who has to sit on her hands and bite her cheeks to keep from losing her mind and bladder.
David Shields introduced the reading with a suggestion that its arrangement along generational lines might allow us to see how the essay “tumbles forth” over time. ‘Tumbling’ proved the perfect verb, as the event romped, sang, whispered, boomed, cried, and looped back again, in a chorus that illustrated the form’s elasticity and capacity for wide-ranging structure, subject, and tone. The experience served as a reminder of the essay’s expansiveness, how it holds room for pretty much everything, even nagging examinations of truth itself—where and how truth fits and what it even is, which I realize is a non-assertion assertion that makes me sound like a douchebag.
Through Lopate’s softly-assured and funny reading about genre concerns, to Shields’ deadpan delivery of “Life Story,” a riff on cliché via bumper stickers—from fill-in-the-blank “On Board” to “Sober and Crazy,” or my favorite, “Die With Your Mask On,” Nina and I (and most of the audience I would guess) were overcome—howling with laughter in some moments, wonder-struck in others. Next came Amy Fusselman’s essay on time, parenthood, and pedophilia, all rendered in a pitch-perfect collage of musing and narrative, and then Elena Passarello, from her new book Let Me Clear My Throat. What is there to say about a writer who looks like a starlet herself, belts like Judy Garland, reads in a husky almost-drawl, and writes crackling prose that compares Garland’s voice to a “a disturbing emotional vertigo” and the way she sings as “like a dram of Armagnac”? Spellbinding.
But back to what did or didn’t happen: I sat close enough to Lopate to touch him and weep into his blazer, but I didn’t. I might have, though, if I could be sure the gesture would come off not as stalking, but as guerilla marketing. In fact, I was merely star struck, and so naturally I stared at him with a frozen serial-killer smile and said nothing.
When Shields read, my friend howled with such consistency and enthusiasm that I became a giggly noodle in my chair, and Shields paused and motioned to us, “this woman [Nina] is really enjoying this essay.” I felt quite proud to be singled out, but then waited for us to be removed and put into the hall. Maybe we were removed, I can’t remember.
Lopate says that facts and their implications reveal “the innate shape of reality”; he describes his as the “vanguard position” and concedes that Shields’ blurrier view of fiction vs. nonfiction while fundamentally different, is as valid—even healthy for the form. This acknowledgment seems right to me, the essay itself so flexible, the conversation should be too. My own position is closer to Lopate’s, not because I have a crush on him or a pre-contemporary aesthetic or am somehow more abjectly truthful than my contemporaries, but because I am sentimental. I believe, as Lopate does, that “facts matter,” in part because they encode the DNA of emotional resonance that I try to render as a nonfiction writer. I believe in William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.”
What I was wearing; how it smelled like banana and lemon oil; the isosceles triangle of light that hung over the readers; how Passerello arched like a cat when she broke from reading into song, “When You’re Smiling!”; that Amy Fusselman was late, through no fault of her own I am sure; and that David Shields’ hands shook a bit as he read: these things mattered. I wish I could tell you how much they mattered, but I wasn’t there.
Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist ofGlamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Elizabeth Kadetsky:
Day One—in which I rent a bicycle for the week.
The bike shop guy, like bike shop guys everywhere, is tattooed, scruffy. In an offhand in gesture, he flicks a tress of hair from his face. Then he says: “Now don’t forget a light if you’re riding at night.” He speaks in a Melbourne accent, which proves to be not Crocodile Dundee so much as evening news in London spoken with an upturned smile. I think, what an orderly city. He winks, changing shape in my imagination from bike shop guy to upstanding citizen, a man wielding rules.
But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t follow rules. “Nice tattoos,” I comment as I skulk out with my municipal-government sanctioned helmet strapped to my handlebars.
“Don’t forget the helmet!” he adds cheerily.
I learn several facts about the city of Melbourne during my first hours from the vantage of two wheels:
• the government subsidizes bicycle helmets
• subsidized helmets can be bought for five dollars at 7-Eleven
• nobody doesn’t wear a helmet (on a bike)
• bikes, between the white lines in bike lanes, act like cars, whereas in America we act like pedestrians on wheels, aka like adolescents tripping on acid at a rock concert
• this is not New York
• no one plays squirrel with pedestrians
• cyclists wait patiently at traffic lights—between the white lines of the bike lanes, before the white lines of the crosswalks. No one hops to the sidewalk to cut a corner.
Perhaps it’s my being a New Yorker that caused me to notice, first, about Melbourne, its rules.
Caveat: I understand that there’s nothing more irritating than a New Yorker writing in a condescending manner about other, presumably lesser, cities. Please permit me my malingering. By essay’s end, the author is sure to meet her comeuppance.
Confession: In New York, I often ride the wrong way down a separated bike path on First Avenue from my apartment—on East Twelfth Street—to Houston Street—twelve blocks south. Here, the path becomes two-way. I do this in order to avoid going an extra block out of my way to ride down Second and then return all the way back to First, but in fact I’m never alone in this scofflaw activity. There is always a whole pack of us, pushing against traffic.
And yet: every time—every time—someone shouts at me. Of course, they’re right—it’s annoying, but this is New York. I’ve gotten yelled at so often I can tell from a block’s distance who will do it. It’s always a white guy. Always. “Go back to Brooklyn!” I mutter under my breath. “This is Manhattan.” If it happens in Brooklyn, I mutter, “Go back to Minnesota!” I’ve been riding like this since I was a messenger at age fifteen—when the dispatcher instructed me to lie about my age to get the job. “Sweetie, it’s how we do things,” he said. There were many open secrets in our city: underage drinking, smoking pot on the street, hopping the subway turnstiles after the 7pm cutoff for the free schools pass.
I grew up in a New York City of chaos. Isn’t it that innate chaos, at least in part, that makes New York the most artistic city in the world? Just sayin’.
And yet. Melbourne was so pleasant. The slang was so welcoming and cheerful. New York slang, its accent is noxious. Then there’s rhyming Cockney, which is a sort of mean joke on anyone who’s not gritty enough to be Cockney—totally impenetrable. Melbourne slang seemed to be about evoking childhood, eating brekky and playing footie and wearing bluey jackets. A local told me that in general the language followed the rule of shortening—Mels for Melbourne, totes for totally, uni for University. I wondered if in this young nation—founded as a Commonwealth only little over a century ago, in 1901—it was the language of children that was celebrated.
Day Three—in which a New Yorker ponders issues of entitlement
For her opening address at the NonfictioNow Melbourne conference, Cheryl Strayed read her magnificent “Write Like a MotherFucker” Dear Sugar column, which is about entitlement:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
After, I coasted down the pleasant slope along the western edge of the Melbourne Museum grounds down from Gertrude Street (Did people call it “Gertie”? I asked myself). Sunshine angled across the path at its customary 10 degree-angle, casting that alluring, Southern Hemisphere gleam on the tarmac. Humbled by possible repercussions from rule-breaking—fear of fines, arrest, the uncertain rights of a foreigner on alien soil—I’d begun following them.
And I wondered, In New York, why was it always white men who sneered at me when I broke the rules?
Then I understood, in a flash: my rule-breaking on the bicycle annoyed people because it was an entitled behavior. I wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the cops—me: articulate, white, neither an immigrant nor paperless nor poor. What did I have to fear? Entitled rule-breaking annoys people who are following the rules themselves, who must ask, I’m following the rules, why doesn’t she?
I stopped for a light. Stopped—grounded to zero velocity, though there was not a single impediment racing along the cross-street. Not a pedestrian, not a car. I stayed between the lines. And a revelation came to me: my rule breaking rankled white men in particular because of their entitlement. They are working hard to overcome their own sense of privilege in order to not break rules, as I was here in Mels. It’s difficult, when you’re used to walking through the world in a different manner. What a slap in the face, to see someone flaunt a restriction brazenly. Enraging. To follow rules is to eat your entitlement.
In which I ponder, as a writer of nonfiction, how to balance a desire to break rules against the problems of entitlement?
At NonfictioNow, we celebrate the breaking of rules. Nonfiction is a genre that defies categories, embracing its the relative lack of them versus the older modes: fiction with its Freytag’s Pyramid, Poetry with its sestina.
The Australian writers in particular at NonfictioNow seemed adept at locating organic forms for content. Theresa Meads read a lyric essay in which visual content interplayed against repeated fragments of poetic prose. Panel titles referenced “The Margins,” “Picturing the Essay,” “Audio-Visual Experiments,” “Landscapes: Broken, Extreme, Constructed,” “Memory, Image, Trauma,” Nonfiction Poetry,” “Graphic Narratives”, “Fiction in Nonfiction”, “Lies Damn Lies.”
How was it that this celebration of manifold and perhaps not-yet-even-invented iterations of form should take place in a city of rules? The Australians seemed the conference’s more adept rule-breakers. Perhaps I was missing something.
Nonfiction is formless, boundless, a place to invent, explore.
“I no longer believe in great man thinks. I no longer believe in great man sits in a room alone and writes masterpiece.” —David Shields, in a talk on James Agee
“A significant component of the postmodern world is the collapse of perception between what is real and what we perceive to be real.” —Brandon Schrand, in a talk on lyric style
“We know not which to be charmed by, the author or the man” —Patrick Madden in a talk on “the faceblanket,” citing William Hazlitt citing Montaigne
“We don’t have enough crazy books anymore.” —Robin Hemley
“Theme of conference: Nonfiction is a medium that can and should—must, perhaps?—convey our postmodern reality. It must rewrite the contract with the reader. This is why (why?) nonfiction is the genre best poised to grapple with questions of truth, non-truth, irreality.” —me, in my notebook
It was night. I waited for the light at Gertie Street. The Australian author Helen Garner had just given a talk, in which she cheered our American Janet Malcolm for having been vindicated, back in 1994, in the famous libel suit brought against her by Jeffrey Masson. I remembered a headline about the trial from the time, reading, more or less, “Do Speakers Really Say What Is Between Quotation Marks?” Would that they could, I remembered the text, with its throwing-up-of-hands, its shrug. A sea change. “Just How Sacrosanct Are the Words Inside Quotation Marks?”—I remembered another headline. I heard, as, during the conference, David Shields had quoted Robin Hemley quoting Pico Iyer, “The indelible sound of a brain trying to make sense of something.” Perhaps that brain was my own.
The traffic light asserted its boorish red. I pushed the wheel toward the white line, but only the nose of the beast crossed to the liminal other side. I leaned forward. The base of the wheel touched the line, then crossed it. Streetlamps gleamed in the hemispheric mist. There was not a soul. My helmet chafed. I stood on the pedal, pushed. And I flew, headlong, into the unknown.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain, published in 2004 by Little, Brown, and forthcoming in rEprint from Dzanc Books.
November 22, 2012 § 13 Comments
Brevity contributor Rebecca Fish Ewan guest blogs from Melbourne, Australia, on the first day of NonfictioNow 2012. (By the way, you can click on any of her impressionistic sketches below to see them in a better size.)
I’ve always been a slut for words, but now I can say I’m officially a word groupie…having traveled halfway across the planet, because David Shields was speaking at a conference. Well to clarify, his name is what caught my googling eye months ago and inspired me to submit a proposal for a panel at the NonfictioNow 2012 conference where he is a keynote speaker. I had heard him read at another gathering of writers two years ago and then promptly gobbled through Reality Hunger. What can I say…I’m a sucker for dry wit. Or maybe it’s his hair. No, it’s the words and the mind behind the words. Here’s bullet list of wisdom from Shields’ talk today:
- Collage is accentuated by editing
- Writing can be appropriative
- Pound was playing cover versions of other poets
- If you want to be able to write serious books, you have to be willing to break forms
- Time always wins
- Art can be landfill
After the first full day of sessions, the largest revelation for me has been how wide writing is being cracked open. Genres seem almost quaint and the boundary between the literary and visual arts blurred. What is also clear is that for everyone here writing may in fact be better than sex, or whatever else people find excruciatingly necessary. Below are a few sketches from my notebook and selected comments from the panels I attended. The conference is organized (and the program very clearly color-coded) along thematic threads. I attended sessions on radio essays, place (as a panelist), memoir, and writing and images (still and film). Although these sessions were grouped in separate themes, common ideas emerged, particularly regarding form (break it), time (bend, compress, reverse it), genre (bust it) and truth (tell it, always). For all of these umbrella concepts the speakers seemed to be testing the edges, except for truth. The consensus seems to be against lying in any way. As I listened to each writer talk about their work, I could also sense writing as a spatial art. Language has volume and can be moved through and sculpted. This is not news to me, but I’m comforted to see how pervasive this perspective is among the writers here.
I enjoy listening to people talk when they say something that has never occurred to me or they make me laugh. When they can do both, I’m hooked.
My day began and ended with two very funny men.
- David Shields, who said “I don’t want to bore you with citations.”
- Brandon Schrand, who’ll have a new book out in March 2013 called Works Cited.
I would enjoy listening to them have a conversation:
In the session on Picturing the Essay, Kathryn Millard said an essay takes an idea for a walk while an essay film takes an image for a walk. Ross Gibson extended the function of the essay beyond responding to the question of what do I know to pondering what do I sense. I will always think of chickens (chooks) scratching when I think of the nature of the essay, because of David Carlin.
One last thing. I learned a new Aussie word: daggy. From the multiple contexts in which I heard it used, daggy might mean dorky or turd-like. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Either way, I don’t think it’s good to be considered daggy.
For words from others at the conference, check out the conference blog.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between and graduate of the creative writing MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University, teaches landscape history and is currently working on a memoir in lyric essays. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her family, and makes pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean whenever life permits.
November 20, 2012 § 8 Comments
This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French. (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.)
Last Roundtable Question:
Moderator: In “The Facts of the Matter,”Anonymous writes, “It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining.” I’d like to close by asking you all to engage with this larger question of the argument about fact in nonfiction. Do the choices we make as artists (and consumers of art) influence or intersect with larger societal issues such as those cited by anonymous? Does the comic notion of “truthiness” attach to both John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and to the Bush administration’s misleading information on WMDs in Iraq, or is that just a hyper-hysteric exaggeration? Is there more at stake here than a genre of writing privileged in the academy but not so much on the radar of the average American or international citizen, or are we jousting at windmills that don’t really matter in the larger scale of humanity? Finally, where are we as a genre? Are we really comfortable with lying, or have most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction?
SH: Well, I guess I’ll start this off… I’m going to take on the quote at the beginning in conjunction with the last question; I have more to say about “truthiness,” which I think is an important and dangerous gray area. I want to start with an honest question for my esteemed table mates. The quote at the beginning of the question posits “many” nonfiction liars. In the piece Anonymous implicates three by name: John D’Agata, David Shields, and Robert Atwan. Shields first: I’m actually not 100% sure that Shields’ position is represented clearly in the piece; the quote included seems to be observation misinterpreted in the piece as edict. Second: as far as John D’Agata goes, Ned already broke up with him. A major move! Tears were shed! Many of us talked and talked, were sick to our stomachs about someone treading all over a genre we care about, and we mulled it over and gnashed our teeth in continuous conversations and panels.Yes, this stuff will sell books, but that’s beyond our control. Just about anything flashy sells a book. Third: as for Robert Atwan, if he made a troubling comment, someone should ask him to clarify and respond directly. Are there many more? The numbers might be more obvious to someone like Ned who screens submissions at a major nonfiction journal. There’s much lumping of like and unlike here (rape vs. lying, D’Agata and Shields and Atwan vs. “many”), and I need to first understand what is actually being asserted. I did not understand why all these wrenching machinations were necessary to get to a point that seems so obvious; for me, the ends did not justify the means. Lying is wrong in our genre. Either I am missing a raft of semi-fake meta-essays (thankfully), or this piece is saying something that many people in the nonfiction community already know and believe. Or are we also to revisit the well-trod ground of faked memoirs? Let’s not. Liars will continue to get tons of attention, then will get praise for being “bold” and “controversial,” and the rest of us will just have to continue doing our work and calling them out on it. Or?… Enlighten me.
ANONYMOUS: Despite its dismissal as mere entertainment, it seems to me that art is still the compass of culture, so David Shields’ glib claim that “facts are irrelevant” in creative nonfiction seems to me gravely consequential (not surprisingly his assertion arises roughly coincident with a shift in our political discourse from disagreeing over interpretations of facts to a disagreement about what the facts are…not to mention fictional WMDs, Jayson Blair scandal, etc.). I think the fashionable disregard for “the facts” in nonfiction reflects a broader willingness within our culture to disregard inconvenient facts–whether for political advantage or for the so-called sake of art or to meet a newspaper deadline.
I wish this were limited to a few flamboyant rhetorical works by Shields or D’Agata or a single speech by Mr. Atwan, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Viz Pam Houston’s introductory remarks to Jill Talbot’s anthology, in which Houston argues–as many recent graduate and undergraduate students of mine have done–that, given the subjective nature of perception, it’s meaningless to talk about facts in nonfiction, since it’s all interpreted anyway (such illogic has, alas, become a commonplace): http://www.hungermtn.org/corn-maze/ . One might hope that my essay’s point were as obvious as Sonya suggests, but sadly we seem to have lost our collective conviction regarding facts, and whether they matter. Hence, this piece.
But for me, the heart of “The Facts of the Matter” is not its account of a sexual assault or its invented persona but its summary of the 18th-century Stamp Act–which distinguished fact from fiction about forty years before democratic revolutions flourished. That historical fact is not one that we talk enough about, as far as I’m concerned, or think enough about. I believe that what we do narratively does inform what we do actually (neuroscience increasingly suggests this is so): which is why I’m grateful to the thoughtful commentators whose effort to meaningfully parse this question gives me hope.
MF: I’m going to address the elephant in the room, instant replay in sports. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the larger cultural impulse that best intersects with our own artistic considerations of truth, fact, creative nonfiction, memoir, essays, composite characters, artful bending, and all of that. As anyone with even casual experience in televised sports viewing knows, instant replay offers a constant interruption to the flow of games, with the presumed benefit of objective truth.
In football: the head referee goes under the black hood to parse an apparently infinite number of variables (did the ground cause the fumble or was the hand moving forward and does the plane of the endzone extend infinitely skyward even as it is contained within the framework of blaze orange pylons?).
In baseball: line calls can be reviewed, to know whether the triple just inside the bag is actually a foul ball just outside the bag.
In basketball: exciting “buzzer beater” shots are automatically reviewed, holding the frenzied masses in a state of suspended animation — did we win, did we lose? — until the swish can be corroborated with the hundredth-of-the-second.
In tennis: the technological Hawk-Eye camera/computer wizardry (fascinating article here) extrapolates ball trajectory to create a definitive call of in or out and, apparently, make it clear which player tirades are justified and which aren’t.
In cricket (shit, cricket, has instant replay): various incomprehensible things are made clear through the intervention of technology. If you clicked the link above you know that Hawk-eye, in fact, was designed for a fairly specific problem in cricket that I will not pretend to understand.
I hate instant replay or, rather, the impulse that makes instant replay a desirable (even if detested) aspect of contemporary sports. We demand instant replay because we favor the concrete over the ambiguous, wish to pretend that subjectivity is non-existent, remain steadfast in a commitment to a delusion of the absolute. Instant replay exploits our discomfort with judgment, valuation, and nuance. Instant replay makes us feel like truth has been served, because we have verifiable technological proof that something happened in a precise way.
But, let us then ignore for a moment that the very act of measuring something affects its outcome (so sayeth Heisenberg, who might not actually have been talking about the infamous NFL “tuck rule” but might as well have done so). And let us also ignore the prevailing wisdom of beloved post-structuralist French theorists like Derrida and Foucault and Althusser and, my personal favorite, Baudrillard, who all rise up to more or less say, truth is not true. Or knowable. Or is always in negotiation. Or something like that.
Thus I find it completely unsurprising that the growing use of instant replay coincides with a growing clamor for the “absolute” knowledge that a college football playoff will bring coincides with the use of remote-controlled drone strikes in Afghanistan that appear simultaneously true and video gamey coincides with the strategic disinformation of WMDs and the invasion of privacies under various un-truthfully named artifacts like the Patriot Act coincides with the rabid de-truthification of presidential campaigns coincides with the growth industry of on-line fact-checking sites coincides with our own conversation about how sacrosanct the Truth is when writing creative nonfiction.
Goodness, even rodeo uses instant replay.
“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature,” David Shields writes in “What We’re All Looking For: Notes On Our Reality Hunger”. “I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal. We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir.”
I wonder if part of the reason that the contemporary creative nonfiction of right now keeps circling around the limits and validity of truth-fidelity correlates precisely to the growing lack of clarity we experience in our world. Ours is a regrettable time of fundamentalism, when the discomfort of an ambiguous world blows so many toward the rigidity of dogma and the drawing of lines in the sand. Indeed, creative nonfiction is a genre that relies very much on the usage of truth, but I think we’re disingenuous at best when we pretend that truth is something we ever quite fully understand. In fact, since I think most people really do understand how untenable truth is (has always been, will always be), many turn to nonfiction as a quiet refuge away from the storms of postmodern confusion.
To me, fundamentalism marks one of the chief problems of the current state of creative nonfiction, which frequently seems to be almost indistinguishable from the notion of the memoir, even though the latter is a certain subset of the former. Instead, because popular nonfiction has been dominated for a decade or so with the kinds of memoirs that Shields identifies as “a summing up of life,” we have come too quick to think of that mode as a preferred aesthetic of the genre. But I consider the memoir (as most know it) to be the least interesting of the nonfiction out there, or at least the most limited. The memoir seeks to recount or reconstruct some aspect of life that was lived, and in practice that often results in a preference for memoirs of interesting lives that have been lived. So when we limit ourselves to a genre of memoir, we limit ourselves to a genre of gossip: consider how much memoir relies on the melodramatic, on essentially the same kind of subject matter that has long been fodder for supermarket paperback romances and mysteries and thrillers. I fear that a rigid desire for a certain kind of (falsely) absolute truth supports a vision of our genre as one predicated on hyper-dramatic subject matter. Melodrama is not known for nuance. A lack of nuance can too easily appear to be Truth, nuance too easily considered misleading.
Art, of course, is the desire to press against the thick skin of life. Art is the line call. Art enters when we can’t quite make heads nor tails of the situation (What? Now even competitive coin-flipping has instant replay!?). Art revels in ambiguity, and I think we do a disservice to the artistic potentials of creative nonfiction when we are too quick, as Shields argues, to epistemologize ourselves as journalists who write with a bit more flair, use the first person a lot, maybe get a little crazy from time to time and write in the second person.
One of the horrific consequences of our contemporary spin toward a world defined by technology and economy is the marginalization of art. I fear that when we become too absolute about truth and do not acknowledge the potential truth of truthiness, when we do not recognize the fluidity of our genre and how the motion between the real and the twisted is, often, hard to know (like, what did I have for lunch yesterday? And if I write that it was tuna fish when, in fact, it was lutefisk, have I committed a sin against truth that both disqualifies me from the genre of creative nonfiction and links me irrevocably with depraved and wanton liars?), we are committing a blow against literature. Creative nonfiction is not about the telling of facts. It is about the shaping of facts in a quest to probe the questions that lead us to truth. No, it’s not the same thing as fiction, even if it sometimes appears on the page as a similar animal. But neither does slippage in “factuality” immediately disqualify something as nonfiction. As with so much (everything) in the world, there are gradients and spectrums and matrices and complicated venn diagrams to nonfiction. Instant replay is only one sort of truth, and it’s not the truth I believe lies at the heart of creative nonfiction.
SH: Good points, Matt. I think the two questions of most consequence for our genres and for the question of truth in literary writing–as you point out–are not the absolute decision on “truth vs. lying” but the question of humility (having your limitations be blind spots or explicit and acknowledged) and the question of motive. We can tend toward truth; that’s the best we can do, if truth is something we care about. We are limited by our humanity and our subjectivity. I think John D’Agata in his D’Agata-way loves truth enough to rumple it, though I personally don’t think it should be rumpled. I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer. That might be a high standard to hold, but it is mine. At the same time, we have to be humbled by truth, by the unknowability of the universe. I can barely get a handle on where I left my car keys. Keeping multiple fake universes running is not one of my gifts.
At the same time, one key political point is that “truthiness” matters in different ways depending on the voice and the aims. Motive is key. In politics, for example: Propaganda is lying or exaggerating for the sake of trying to make change in the world through a somewhat despotic manipulation in order to coerce an audience to believe something you believe. It’s often done for fervently noble reasons. Propaganda can even be aesthetically brilliant in a Leni Riefenstahl way, but it is usually dangerous and it hurts people. What’s more, it robs them of their dignity through stirring up emotions and then using the power of those emotions as a stand-in for rational thought. Hence the WMD fervor, the blind spots, and the unknowable question of whether those people believed what they wanted to believe or whether it was calculated manipulate, or both. This is part of what riled me up about the Anonymous piece; in one sense, it’s literary propaganda, designed to make a noble point–but those are practices and an entire genre I ran from and I want no part of. The distinction between propaganda and polemic, I believe, is the distinction between engagement of the animal-guts and the mind.
The good news is that there is nothing new about propaganda. It’s something that has been long discussed and analyzed. Truthiness in politics is kin to propaganda. The only antidote is a fearless recording of our actual minds, our real lives, our less-than-magical daily details. In essays, I believe you can fearlessly imagine, and it’s easy to do so. All you have to do is to start with “I imagine” and then to share your brain. Then tell the reader why that was relevant to your real life. That’s my suspicion even with the aesthetic use of “improvement” of truth without the vulnerability of “showing your work” (I stole that from Bob Cowser, who I think was quoting someone else): it’s the loss of contact with our messy reality. But the opposite challenge is the inherently impossible nature of portraying messy reality through a single subjectivity. Those are two very different “truth” challenges. They should not both be simply put under the umbrella of lying.
I’m a current and former political activist. Anyone with strong political passions who also writes has to admit that they have contemplated using their writing skill to write the heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative tearjerkers or brain-bakers. As a journalist, I’ve done that. And I’ve been asked to do that and refused. Over time, my moral compass developed to the point that when I was treading anywhere close to that territory, I got a little queasy. I don’t do much journalism anymore because some of what I was asked to do (particularly as a freelancer) tread into those accepted categories of sensationalism: Generate Shock! Outrage! Sadness! Joy! It’s funny that we think of journalism as somehow immune from those propagandistic templates.
I’m essaying toward my point here, which is that genre doesn’t give us a corner on truth. We can’t protect ourselves from the lying that surrounds us except on a case-by-case basis. Whenever something outrages our senses of decency, we have to speak out. We also have to speak out in a grounded way that risks something: our real identities, our reputations and our jobs, our lives and our friendship networks, even our “likes” on the Internet. If we don’t have real people willing to stand up for even a limited and local form of truth, we have lost the main strand in our genre that matters to me, which is the confrontation with what is beyond and around us.
ANONYMOUS: It’s false to oppose truth and fact, or journalism and literature, distinct as each is (Didion’s Salvador, for one, encompasses all of the above). The whole point of CNF is to acknowledge the writer as lens, to render the actual through a particular mind, and many of the best memoirs (as well as literary journalism and essays) make use of the gap between what happened and what is recalled (McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for one). The problem arises when we pretend to render facts when we’re writing fiction–not recording memory’s delightful mishaps or employing invention for meaningful effect (and signaling reader of same as Hong Kingston and Slater and Ondaatje, among many others, do) but lying to the reader because it’s easier or more expedient or from laziness or a desire not to consider the facts too closely.
I, for one, love to invent and do: in fiction. When claiming the heft of fact, I stick as close as I can to same, while acknowledging slippage, memory’s gaps, signaling where certainty fails and guesswork or invention of necessity begin, as I work my way toward understanding. It’s silly to pretend that personal truth is at odds with facts: think of Hong Kingston’s brilliant rendering of whole scenes she had no part in to convey the “truth” of her childhood ! But she levels with the reader and let’s us know what is invented. Not to do so is to lie. And should disturb the reader as my bit of invention in “The Facts of the Matter” has done.
To suggest that we ought to let the reader know when we embark on invention in nonfiction is hardly fundamentalism; it’s common sense. That it’s necessary to have this conversation at such length suggests to me how uncommon such sense has become.
NED S-F: I like “truthiness” and don’t like “trickiness”; that is, I like truthiness as practiced by Stephen Colbert when he, as “Stephen Colbert,” uses the concept to undo the trickiness (aka the “truthiness”) of George Bush or James Frey or David Shields, all of whom he has exposed on his show.
Maybe I’m feeling too damn sunnyside-up because of the results of the recent election, but I don’t agree with Anonymous’s assertion that “writers of creative nonfiction have become…at ease with lying” and “uninterested in truth.” Why else would so many of us have been so up in arms about A Million Little Pieces? And in response to Sarah’s final question, I would say that no we are not “really comfortable with lying” and “most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction.”
Which means that we understand what Stephen Colbert means when he talks about truthiness and that finally we don’t fall for the trickiness of Bush, Frey, Shields, and D’Agata. Or, if we do fall for it, we get as mad as Oprah when we find out that we were tricked. Or, as mad as I was at Anonymous when I found out that I had been tricked and that he was a she and not a rapist.
(Which is not all that mad. Indeed, I hope to give my old friend Anonymous a hug, buy her a beer, and have a chat when next I see her, which I suspect will be at AWP in Boston. I will not be mad at her, just as I was not really mad at John D’Agata when I “broke up with him” at the last AWP.)
I agree with Anonymous when she says that we can make shit up as long as we signal that we are making shit up. But I don’t think James Frey signaled that he was (as Colbert put it) “making up his past,” or that Bush signaled when he sent Colin Powell to the UN with all those charts, or that D’Agata signaled when he played the asshole to Fingal’s overly earnest fact-checker, but neither do I think Anonymous signaled when she pretended she was a rapist and I don’t think she’s signaling now when she insists that she must still be anonymous (though you can be in on the joke if you buy Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University Of Iowa Press) 242 pages, $39.95). I know, I know, she’ll say she signaled after the fact, but to me that just puts the piece in that particular subgenre of trickiness called gotcha.
And I think that Sonya is absolutely right when she suggests that distinction between “truthiness” and “trickiness” has to do with the humility. LIke Sonya, “I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer,” and that motive and humility make such communication possible. Humility comes from recognizing that we often lie to ourselves in our writing, or to put it another way, we don’t always signal to ourselves when we are making shit up. Part of my quarrel with both The Lifespan of a Fact and “The Facts of the Matter” is that while I think they are both smart, I also think they are too clever by half. It is easy, indeed inevitable, to screw up, lie to ourselves, slip into denial, lose our humility, posture toward our readers, and as a consequence, not get it right. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is very hard to come by. Reality is sly, people are complicated, and truth is slippery, or as Matt nicely put it, instant replay isn’t enough. I think Montaigne had it right when he recognized that you get it right by recognizing that you can’t get it right, even if life consists of trying to get it right. You keep listening to yourself and your reader. You keep revising by only adding, never subtracting, and you doubt everything, even yourself, especially yourself, in that never-ending attempt to answer the question “Que sais-je?”
But hey, what do I know?