October 7, 2014 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Penny Guisinger:
Writers like me know that there’s a certain defensiveness in our genre’s name: creative nonfiction. It’s like we need you to know that what we write is true, but it’s also creative. We want you to know that we’re not writing software manuals.
Further, it’s the genre that defines itself by what it isn’t. Non fiction. What we write is not fiction, because fiction is not true. We write what is not not true. I looked up “double negative” in the dictionary, and read that it’s a “syntactic construction containing two negatives and having a negative meaning.” Our genre has a negative meaning. That’s not easy to live with.
Maybe if our genre had a sexier name, or at least a more accurate one, fewer careers would be ruined, fewer dreams dashed on the jagged rocks of the Oprah show. Maybe that’s why we try to think of something else to call it – reportage, personal narrative, lyric essay – something that doesn’t work so hard to hold our feet to this hot thing people think of as “truth” – for we are not not ever really able to capture what is not not truth. (I don’t even know what that means.)
In October 2013, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and spent a hungry afternoon wandering through an exhibit called “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.” I was hungry because I couldn’t find the cafeteria, but also for the incredible works of art I was seeing. Images that were made from multiple negatives sandwiched together or transformed through darkroom trickery like dodging and burning, adding and removing light. Photos that were printed, photocopied, photographed again, painted on, then re-photocopied. And I thought, “That’s creative nonfiction.”
One of the earliest photographic prints, made in 1846, is an image of four monks posing on a terrace in Malta. But an examination of the negative shows a fifth monk standing behind the group. The photographer, working undercover in the darkroom, just took that fifth one out. We don’t know why, but we also totally know why. It made a better story, or it fit the rhythm of the piece better, or it made a cleaner composition. The fifth monk was clutter – a distracting, irrelevant detail. His removal made the image more true to that artist’s vision of the world. It was what he wanted us to see in what he was seeing. He made a choice.
Even straight photography has a slippery relationship to the truth. According to the incredibly expensive book I splurged on from the exhibit at the Met, “…there is no such thing as an unmanipulated photograph. The process of making a photograph – of translating the constantly changing, full-color, three-dimensional world into a flat, static, bounded image – involves dozens of conscious and unconscious decisions.” Early prints had no color, and had to be painted by hand to look “real.” Inflexible film emulsions required that land and sky be captured in separate frames then sandwiched together in order to show what the scene really looked like. And I can tell you from my years spent as a wedding photographer that I had to work hard to capture images of the weddings people planned rather than the weddings they actually had. Capturing reality requires acts of omission and other treacheries.
For us it’s all about the alphabet and how we stick letters together on the page. Those are our truth-making tools – and sometimes people don’t like how we employ them. Remember all the trouble John D’Agata got himself into back in 2003 when he unapologetically changed some facts to get at his version of an artful truth? Among other things, he described “invisible black mountains” behind the Las Vegas skyline, and the fact checker (because he checked) felt that the mountains would be more accurately described as “brown.” There’s more to the story than just that adjective, and it’s an easy case to make that he changed too much. But at AWP 2012 in Chicago, in a room filled with hundreds of writers just like us, a shouting match broke out over D’Agata’s choices. Or his transgressions. Or his artistic brush strokes. People were actually yelling at each other about this piece of art. There were calls for greater accountability, more truth. I think most of us can get behind that. After all, we’re not writing what’s not true, remember? Yet, it feels impossible for us to hold each other’s feet to the fire in terms of facts when we probably can’t even agree what color the flames are. Are they orange or are they red? If we can’t even ask for hard facts from our cameras, why would we demand it from our writers?
There’s a line from a last year’s NYT review of Scott McClanahan’s book Crappalachia in which the reviewer notes that”…the truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.” Photographic memories are no better than photographs. Memoirs are just memories. Essays are just attempts. Reportage is not reporting. And have you read a software manual recently? They’re packed with confusion and lies.
Creative nonfiction writers: we are not not the writers of truth that is not not creative. Do you not know what that doesn’t mean? It means we’re not not artists.
Penny Guisinger is an essayist whose work has not not appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Solstice, and other not unamazing places. She isn’t not the founding director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and she didn’t fail to receive her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.