Unified Theory of Ned

November 11, 2019 § 5 Comments

nedBy Paul Haney

Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.

Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.

On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.

The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”

“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.

Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.

Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.

Truth or Art? “We Want Both!”

July 29, 2016 § 5 Comments


Ned Stuckey-French

We’ve struggled through the morning trying to come up with a concise summation of Ned Stuckey-French’s discussion of John D’Agata’s latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, but the truth is that Stuckey-French’s analysis can’t be reduced to a few sentences. He challenges D’Agata’s ideas on the essay and on nonfiction generally, while at the same time giving D’Agata his due for being a provocative thinker and graceful writer. He focuses on the Graywolf anthology trilogy and D’Agata’s outlier theory, but at the same time provides a clear and succinct historical overview of the genre. And he does so with serious thought and consideration, and with wit.

Still and all, we have to give a taste, if only to convince you to click through and read this in its entirety. Here is Stuckey-French on D’Agata’s controversial assertion that facts can and should be be fudged in the literary essay:


The real bogeyman is facts (a.k.a. Truth, or Reality). Here D’Agata’s false either/or, in which facts are pitted against art, raises its ugly head again. “Facts for the sake of facts” is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose? Like Pooh, when Rabbit asked, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” one wants to shout, “Both!”

The full review essay is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it is so worth the reading.

Crux: A New Nonfiction Book Series

April 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

Sharing some good news out of University of Georgia:

The University of Georgia Press is pleased to announce Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction. Edited by John Griswold, the series aims to publish two to four new titles annually.

Named for intersections, and for the heart of the matter, this series will publish literary nonfiction by diverse writers working in a variety of modes, including personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. Books are intended for general readers, including writers, teachers of writing, and students, and will be both intelligent and accessible. Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued. As the series develops, it will include non-American writers and experiences.

Griswold is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of A Democracy of Ghosts; Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City; and Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays (Georgia, 2014). He has written extensively (as Oronte Churm) at Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

The inaugural book in the series will be published in October 2015. My Unsentimental Education, a memoir by Debra Monroe (On the Outskirts of Normal), offers a smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when crossing class barriers in pursuit of the life of the mind.

Press director Lisa Bayer adds, “Creative nonfiction as a genre is experiencing an unprecedented period of growth and interest—a bit of a golden age. Georgia’s strong literary legacy, combined with the richness of the field, positions us perfectly to make a visible mark.”

The series advisory board includes Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, [Brevity founding editor] Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.For more information:

visit the Crux series page at the University of Georgia Press– online submissions manager and submission guidelines available here

Assay, the New Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

0013_1900_BeachTWC_650x366We were barely unpacked from our summer vacation in Southampton, consumed with reopening Brevity submissions and screaming at the new interns to take their feet off the mahogany desks in our recently-renovated corporate towers, when we received notice of the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

We plan to read the entire issue once we’ve unpacked all the seashells and surplus cases of champagne, but we did dive into Ned Stuckey-French’s brilliant essay on the essay, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” Not only is Ned an absolutely essential resource on the tradition of nonfiction and the essay going all the way back to that peculiar French guy wrote about his own body odor, he also just saved us about an hour the next time we teach a workshop and someone asks, “Can you define those terms?”  Here’s an excerpt followed by a link to the full and amazing and thoroughly fascinating essay:

The personal essay arrived almost two millennia after Aristotle wrote the Poetics, and after several centuries of perhaps too much universality and church doctrine, too many answered questions, too much deferral of particularity and the self, and too little democracy. As a consequence, Montaigne flipped Aristotle’s assertion, arguing instead, “Chaque homme porte la form entire de l’humaine condition,” or “Each man [or person] carries [or bears] the entire form [or impress, or stamp] of the human condition.” For Montaigne, history isn’t less than poetry, because history carries the universal within it. Any living individual can represent the whole of humanity, the possibilities within each of us. Montaigne did not apologize for himself and his new approach, but laid down a challenge instead: “If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves.”

The essay sits somewhere between an edited, organized, largely voiceless, researched, fact-based, history-based article and a narrated, made-up, speculative, climactic, imaginary story. It offers a third way, another way to find everyone’s story in one person’s story. The personal essay differs from the inverted checkmark story in that it doesn’t tell (or just tell) the story of an event. Instead it lets you into what a particular person thinks about an event…or a subject, person, place or problem. It offers – or essays – an answer to a question, a question such as “What is an essay?” As a consequence, an essay is more digressive and meandering than a story. It may be a story, says Hoagland, but it is the story of a mind thinking.

Read “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” at Assay.



March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

April 6th, 2013, 10 AM to 6 PM
The graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts is pleased to announce the inaugural Stalking the Essay Conference, to be held Saturday, April 6, from 10 AM to 6 PM. The conference, organized by Nonfiction Concentration Director Phillip Lopate, is free and open to the public. With this symposium, the Writing Program aims to encircle the practices, theories and possibilities of the essay form by bringing together those who love it.
This conference is intended to be the first of an annual event, as part of a larger effort to establish Columbia University as a magnet for studying the essay’s history and current practice, and nurturing and propagating its future. What makes this location so apt is Columbia’s especially rich essayistic tradition that includes Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, F. W. Dupee, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Randolph Bourne, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Meyer Schapiro, Eric Bentley and Edward Said.
The goal of the conference is to help build a legacy for the essay as an enduring, various, mutating, endearing, essential literary expression. For this must be said in its favor: the Essay is the classic, reliable tool for human consciousness to track itself, and at the same time to overcome isolation—making it possible for writers to establish with readers a bond of friendship.It is a response to the present historical moment, and a fertile meeting-ground for truth and imagination, the personal and the impersonal.

AWP 2013: A Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels

February 28, 2013 § 21 Comments

awp2013jNed Stuckey-French, fearless champion of the essay form and friend of Brevity, put together and shared this extremely handy guide to nonfiction-related panels at the upcoming AWP Boston 2013 Conference.  This is not to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from the other panels: on poetry, fiction, literary citizenship, editing, politics, gender, teaching, etcetera, but if nonfiction is your chosen bag, this is the perfect way to keep track.

Thursday, March 7

 9 – 10:15

Room 110, Plaza Level R111. Looking for Real-Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Tom Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, Daniel Stolar) If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? Five nonfiction writers brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—no doubt with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
Room 303, Level 3 R122. “The Poem of Creation is Uninterrupted”: Writers Respond to Walden and Walden Pond. (Lindsay Illich, Sandra Castillo, Scott Temple, Kristen Getchell) Readers will present original works of poetry and prose responding to Thoreau’s Walden and to the geographical site of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. From the perspective of ecopoetics,Walden serves as a centrifuge for nature writing, but the readers will also explore more subversive readings of the work and the geographical site through verse and prose.

10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

Room 111, Plaza Level R137. I Didn’t Know I Had It In Me: When Fiction Writers Turn to Memoir. (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porochista Khakpour, Carlene Bauer) We always thought we would write fiction; we never intended to write memoirs. But here with are with our memoirs. What happened? Was it the money? Was it a newfound sense of political passion? Or did we simply realize that certain stories—our stories—would work better as memoir? Come find out, and you may be surprised to learn that you too have a memoir in you.
Room 208, Level 2 R145. The Artist as Activist: On Seeing and Saving the Natural World. (Tom Montgomery Fate, Alexis Rizzuto, Jennifer Sahn, Jeffrey S. Cramer, John T. Price) In the 19th century, inspired by Emerson’s essay, Nature, Henry David Thoreau initiated a tradition of the nature writer as observer-artist. Today, that tradition continues, but amid a natural world that has been nearly devastated by our own species. This panel of writers and editors will explore the evolving role of the nature writer as artist and activist—how seeing the world and saving the world are part of the same work.

12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.

Room 109, Plaza Level R164. Epistolophilia: Using Letters and Diaries in Creative Nonfiction. (Julija Sukys, Elsie K. Neufeld, Gabrielle Burton, Joan Sohn, Shannon McFerran) Each panel participant has used collections of letters and diaries to write nonfiction. Topics for discussion that have arisen for us in our work will include: What are the challenges of having a handful of letters to draw on versus mountains of them? What is the role of chronology in this kind of work? How do we fill in the gaps that personal writings inevitably leave? What is the author’s responsibility to her subject? What possibilities open up when working with such rich visual material?
Room 209, Level 2 R175. What About Literary Journalism? (Mark Kramer, Clara Germani, Dan Grossman, Ayesha Pande, Robert Stewart) Despite the decline of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers’ budgets, the climate for literary journalism has never been better. Print is trending downwards, yes, but digital is spiking. Book apps, e-books, multimedia—new opportunities for this genre are continually emerging. In this moderated Q&A session, two journalists, two editors, and an agent discuss the possibilities and share ideas about how to develop stories and publish them.
Room 302/304, Level 3 R177. I Essay to Be. (David Shields, Phillip Lopate, Elena Passarello, Amy Fusselman) This reading traces the lineage of contemporary essay-writing by embodying it: Phillip Lopate reframed and revivified the form decades ago. David Shields looks back to the tradition Lopate articulated and forward to a group of younger literary collagists, including Maggie Nelson and Amy Fusselman. Each generation builds off of and pushes away from the previous one; each of these five essayists finds his or her own way into the form.

1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.

Room 104, Plaza Level R189. Nothing but the Truth: Perspectives on Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom and Beyond. (Catherine Cortese, Michael Martone, Diane Roberts, Robin Hemley, Debra Monroe) Creative nonfiction continues to grow in popularity among readers and students of writing. The genre, however, lacks a standard definition. Some believe the slippery nature of perception affords writers infinite liberties, while others see the genre as one that artfully deploys stable facts. This disparity makes the genre tricky to write and trickier to teach. The writers on this panel will discuss the freedoms and constraints of the genre in their classrooms, as well as in their own work.
Room 107, Plaza Level R191. Five Years of Normal: Anniversary Reading for theNormal School. (Steven Church, Adam Braver, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ann Hood, Joe Bonomo) In 2007, the Normal School published its first issue. In just five years, the magazine has achieved national distribution and a strong reputation for publishing high-quality literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. This reading will celebrate our first five years of publication with readings by the panelists. Moderator and founding editor Steven Church will introduce the readers and moderate discussion afterwards.
Room 200, Level 2 R196. From Parts to a Whole: Turning a Bunch of Essays into a Unified Book. (David Giffels, Chuck Klosterman, Sean Manning, Chuck Klosterman, Meghan Daum) Why do some books of essays feel like collections of B-sides, outtakes and orphans, while others carry the thematic and narrative satisfaction of a good concept album? Drawing from their own experiences, this panel of successful authors discusses vital techniques for conceiving, organizing, developing, and enhancing a collection of creative nonfiction essays into a unified whole. We will address how to balance recurring themes, maintain voice and tone, how to build bridges, and other topics.

4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Room 200, Level 3 R255. Thoreau’s Granddaughters: Women Writing the Wild. (Suzanne Roberts, Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, Gretchen Legler, Li Miao Lovett) Do women approach writing both the wildness of the land and the wilderness of their own bodies differently from men? Do women have a uniquely feminine vision of what it means to be wild? Are they judged by a different set of aesthetics? These five women panelists, including memoirists, novelists, and poets, will discuss their literary influences, the joys and challenges, and the internal doubts and external criticism they face in writing the wild.
Room 209, Level 2 R263. Bending Genre. (Margot Singer, Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley, Dave Madden) The hot debate over ethics in creative nonfiction has sidelined important questions of literary form. Hybrid, innovative, and unconventional, nonfiction is arguably the most exciting area on the literary scene today. But how does nonfiction actually work? How does it recombine and transform elements of other genres? What techniques distinguish nonfiction from other kinds of prose? Contributors to a groundbreaking new anthology of critical essays share their perspectives and ideas.

Friday, March 8, 2013

9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.

Room 110, Plaza Level F112. Progression by Digression: Multiple Narrative Lines in Creative Nonfiction. (Deborah Lott, Paul Lisicky, Hope Edelman, and Ned Stuckey-French) Laurence Sterne’s iconoclastic 1760 novelTristram Shandy can be seen as a forebear to contemporary works of creative nonfiction. In this panel, three creative nonfiction writers look at other works that progress via digression, with their main narrative arcs illuminated, enhanced, commented on, and deepened by other threads. The panelists will examine how seemingly digressive narrative lines can open up a work’s temporal frame, enlarge its perspective, provide metaphoric resonance, and add to its intellectual complexity.
Room 207, Level 2 F119. The Art of the Nonfiction Idea. (Lisa Dierbeck, Pagan Kennedy, Alissa Quart, Katie Orenstein) In this panel, we discuss the anatomy of a successful nonfiction idea. Perfect Storm, Freakonomics, Seabiscuit—each of these books began with a powerful premise. How does an author identify a winning concept? And which ideas are most likely to attract the attention of editors? The session includes an Idea Hospital: audience members will have a chance to pitch their projects to the panelists.

10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

Room 200, Level 2 F142. Essaying the Essay. (David Lazar, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Lia Purpura, Reda Bensmaïa) This panel will speak to the essentially self-reflective nature of the essay: the ways essays have, historically, insistently talked about themselves. All the panelists have work in the newly released anthology Essaying the Essay, from Welcome Table Press, which presents essays on the essay from Montaigne to the present; they will read portions of their work and reflect/revise ways their views of the essay have modified over time.
Room 310, Level 3 F158. The Person Behind You: A Reading of Essays in the Second Person. (Kim Dana Kupperman, Michelle Auerbach, Brian Hoover, Dustin Beall Smith, Rachel Yoder) The second-person point of view can be alluring and tricky, confrontational and seductive, confessional and evasive. What impulses compel us to write in second person, and what challenges does it present to the writer and/or reader? This reading, presented by Welcome Table Press, will feature essays that use the second-person point of view as distancing reflection of a past self, instructional voice, invitation to the reader, and epistolary address. An author Q&A will follow the reading.

12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.

Room 110, Plaza Level F169. Living it Up to Write it Down. (Michael Pearson, Philip Gerard, Joanna Eleftheriou, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno) For Thoreau, living in his cabin in the woods for two years was an experiment in living. Such experiments are not uncommon for nonfiction writers—who engage in an experience to make a story. James Boswell, E. B. White, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Least Heat-Moon, Sue Hubbell, Joan Didion, Bill Bryson, David Foster Wallace, Ted Conover, and many others could be part of a long list of writers who at one time or another made an experience in the hopes of shaping a narrative. The writers on this panel—through examples from their own writing—will discuss or dramatize how such experimentations can lead to story.
Room 210, Level 2 F180. The Urge Toward Memoir. (Elisabeth Schmitz, Jill Kneerim, Michael Thomas, Jeanette Winterson, Lily King) Novelists Jeanette Winterson, Emily Raboteau, Michael Thomas, agent Jill Kneerim, and editor Elisabeth Schmitz discuss the writer’s urge toward memoir. What defines memoir and is it any more “true” or less creative a process than fiction? Panelists will talk about a favorite memoir and the forms they invented for their own.
Room 105, Plaza Level F194. Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy: New Findings from the Field. (Suzanne Cope, Christin Geall, Jan Donley, Stuart Horwitz) This panel features a recent study of approaches to teaching CNF in undergraduate, graduate, and community-based classes. Moderated by Dr. Suzanne Cope, lead researcher in the first participant-based study of CNF instruction for adults, panelists will reflect upon their pedagogy and influences. The conversation will revolve around the findings from the study, including the benefit of mentors and communities of practice, and the adaptation of instruction for various groups.
Room 107, Plaza Level F195. A Reading by the 2011 AWP Award Series Winners.(Marcia Aldrich, Kirstin Scott, Laura Read, Corinna Vallanatos) A reading featuring AWP’s 2011 Award Series winners Marcia Aldrich, Laura Read, Kirstin Scott, and Corinna Vallianatos.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Room 111, Plaza Level F199. Turning in Their Graves: Researching, Imagining, and Shaping Our Ancestors’ Stories. (Rebecca McClanahan, Lee Martin, Mary Clearman Blew, Suzanne Berne, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack) Five authors, including a Certified Genealogist, share their varied experiences of writing about family and ancestral roots, offering suggestions for every stage of the journey: accessing archival sources; sifting through the facts to discover meaning, theme, and universal truths; deciding if and when to invent or fictionalize; shaping the material into an artful text; and dealing with the consequences of the published work.
.F208. Editors as Readers as Writers. (Laura Julier, Leonora Smith, Brenda Miller, Richard Hackler, Kimberly Tweedale) As manuscript reviewers for Fourth Genre, we find some essays particularly appealing because they strike a writerly chord, inviting us to read as writers, and to enter into conversations by writing our own creative nonfiction for which these manuscripts are touchstones. Two essayists whose work will appear in Fourth Genre will read; members of Fourth Genre’s editorial board—a faculty member and an undergraduate—will make this conversation visible by reading the pieces that were thus inspired.

3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Room 108, Plaza Level F227. Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction. (Kathleen Rooney, Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, Ira Sukrungruang) In celebration of this popular emerging genre, as well as the publication of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers, edited by Dinty W. Moore, five of the book’s twenty-six diverse contributors gather to discuss what makes good flash nonfiction memorable and unique, and to offer up ideas and techniques for writing, publishing, and reading the brief essay form well.
Room 303, Level 3 F242. Making Emerson Matter. (Lowell White, John Domini, Lindsay Illich, Amber Foster) The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson have been profoundly influential in American literature. But do his words still matter? What does it now mean to be self-reliant? How do we participate in Nature? Is it possible today to transcend anything? On this panel, four writers will discuss Emerson’s 21st-century legacy, and the ways in which his ideas can be used as a springboard for new writing and thinking.
Room 306, Level 3 F244. The Godzilla of Nonfiction: Has Memoir Swallowed the Essay? (Debra Monroe, Emily Fox Gordon, Meghan Daum, David McGlynn, Madeleine Blais) While creative nonfiction is a growing, vibrant component of most literary journals, most agents and trade presses shy away from essay collections. There is thus a publishing tension between the shorter, not-necessarily chronological, not-necessarily confessional essay and the longer, largely chronological, often confessional memoir. This panel discusses the tension between the short and long forms and offers pragmatic advice for writers working on book-length nonfiction works.

4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Level 2 F250. Alison Bechdel & Jeanette Winterson: A Reading and Conversation, Sponsored by Emerson College MFA.(Alison Bechdel, Jeanette Winterson, Elisabeth Schmitz) Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the ground-breaking comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and Jeannette Winterson, author of Written on the Body and the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, present readings from their work followed by a discussion moderated by Elisabeth Schmitz, Executive Editor at Grove/Atlantic, Inc. The events will be introduced by Emerson College’s Steve Yarbrough, author of the novels Safe from the Neighbors and The End of California.
Room 110, Plaza Level F259. What’s That Book About, Anyway? or, The Stealth Memoir in All Its Guises. (Michelle Herman, Scott Raab, Steven Church, Deb Olin Unferth , Joe Mackall) Get out of your own head. Call it a stealth memoir, or memoir-plus—or, as Scott Raab says of his own recent book, The Whore of Akron (about basketball player LeBron James’s defection from Cleveland to Miami), call it a Swiss Army knife of a book: nonfiction with subject matter other than the author’s life that reveals as much as outright memoir can. Five writers who practice the art of the slantwise, roundabout, research-driven, or journalistic approach to memoir talk about how and why.
Room 207, Level 2 F267. What We Write About When We Write About Music.(Laurie Lindeen, Rick Moody, Will Hermes, Jen Trynin, Jacob Slichter) All art aspires to music because it touches our hearts, souls, senses, and imaginations This panel of writers, musicians, and writing instructors loves, appreciates, knows, and plays music. They have written passionately about music in memoirs, essays, novels, songs, poetry, and blogs. Each individual on this panel would like to share his or her unique path with prose and music, and share their collective beliefs in the emotional, rhythmic importance of musicality when writing and when teaching writing.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.

Room 105, Plaza Level S108. The Truth of Nonfiction: Bringing Students into the Conversation. (Lee Gulyas, Kelly Magee, Rachel Wood, Zackrie Vinczen) The topic of truth in nonfiction is an old one; only the players change. What’s new is asking students what they hear in classes, what they hear in the cultural conversation, and how they make sense of this issue when considering their own ethics, limits, and creative work. Two instructors, one undergraduate student, and two graduate students will consider how the line between fiction and nonfiction informs their classrooms, their writing, and their participation in the larger literary community.
Room 206, Level 2 S118. Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. (Helene Atwan, Marianne Leone, David Chura, Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald) This panel explores the craft of writing nonfiction that is both literary and socially relevant. Panelists include writers who, while seeking to make significant contributions to the national conversation on the issues they are writing about, are first and foremost writers of literary nonfiction. Writers and editors on the panel discuss ways to balance the political goals of the activist with the aesthetic imperatives of literary writing and the financial demands of trade publishing.
Room 209, Level 2 S121. What Do You Mean, I Have to Change That? Creative Nonfiction Editors Explain Logistical Challenges Writers Face along the Path to Publication (and Offer Some Tips for Avoiding Common Pitfalls). (Hattie Fletcher, Stephanie G’Schwind, Laura Julier, Andrew Snee) In a perfect world, your essay quotes a song, describes your neighbor’s late-night orgies, or details your sister’s grisly battle with cancer. It’s a terrific essay… but you might not be able to publish it—at least, not as is. Editors discuss their procedures related to creative nonfiction—what and how we fact-check; why you need to get permission, and how we can help; when (if ever) we suggest disguising identities—and offer concrete tips for anticipating and working around such challenges.

10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

Room 111, Plaza Level,……

Room 102, Plaza Level


S137. The Art and Craft of Short-Form Nonfiction. (Sarah Einstein, Joni Tevis, Brian Oliu, Chelsea Biondolillo) Can you write an essay in 140 characters? In 750 words or fewer? And can you get it published once you have? Join the managing editor of Brevity, two authors of short-form collections, and a graduate student working in this exciting new form as they share techniques and strategies for writing and marketing short-form nonfiction—from the lyric to the expository…
S129. Why Genre Matters. (Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, Scott Nadelson) Writer Lawrence Weschler once said, “… every narrative voice—and especially every nonfiction narrative voice—is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t.” If so, how do we distinguish between memoir and novel, essay and story, poetry and the rest? And why should we care? Panelists will address conflating, compressing, twisting, and embellishing, and the ongoing debate across forms about memory versus imagination and truth versus fact.

12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.

Room 108, Plaza Level S160. Essayists on the Essay. (Ned Stuckey-French, Lynn Bloom, Jenny Spinner, Patrick Madden, Barrie Jean Borich) A new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, collects four centuries of commentary, theory, poetics, and celebrations of the essay. Tapping into that resource, this panel explores the form of the essay as described by its practitioners. How have essayists defined the essay? What have they said about what the form allows? What does the essay ask of its writers and readers?
Room 111, Plaza Level S163. Memoir Beyond the Self. (Jeffrey Shotts, Leslie Jamison, Brigid Hughes, Benjamin Nugent, Colleen Kinder) This panel will focus on narrative nonfiction that pushes the boundaries of traditional memoir by weaving personal experience into broader explorations of literature, history, and culture. What are the possibilities for a precarious first person, neither oppressively dominant nor entirely dissolved? How can memoir escape the bind of solipsism by looking outward at other people, places, and eras? How can private life become a medium through which the external world is articulated?

1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.

Room 306, Level 3…
.Room 109 Plaza Level
S204. How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction.(B.J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Marcia Aldrich, Ryan Van Meter, Bonnie J. Rough) Not every story is flattering, nor is every character. Nevertheless, nonfiction writers continue to document their lives and the lives of others, often at the risk of violating personal relationships. How should writers navigate between revealing the true nature of their subjects without alienating the people themselves? Join four writers as they explore the fine line between documentation and exploitation, among other ethical dilemmas inherent in writing of friends, family, and loved ones..S188. Found in Translation: Great Nonfiction. (Sandi Wisenberg, Faith Adiele, Patrick Madden, Susan Harris, Vijay Seshadri) Much of the creative nonfiction published in literary magazines, anthologies, text, and trade books in this country is written by US writers. We seek to broaden the conversation. We introduce, discuss, and read excerpts from exemplary and significant essays, memoirs, and other nonfictions that excite us—by such writers as Eduardo Galeano, Clarice Lispector, Milena Jesenska, Frantz Fanon, Goli Taraghi, Peter Fröberg Idling, Zbigniew Herbert, Nawal El Saadawi, and more.

3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Room 206, Level 2….




.Room 110, Plaza Level

S224. It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere. (Liza Monroy, Kassi Underwood, Nick Flynn, Anthony Swofford, Matthew Parker) Writers of political memoirs tell personal stories that intersect with issues of social consequence: Abortion. Gay marriage. Torture. How can we avoid accidentally writing a polemic? Are we trying to solve a problem by telling our stories? Can we? We will explore the unique opportunities and challenges of this sub-genre, focusing on how writers can take advantage of the tension that exists when one person’s experience both illuminates and subverts its larger political context..S217. My Son Is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids. (Marybeth Holleman, Hope Edelman, Lisa Couturier, Caroline M. Grant, Kate Hopper) As more mothers find time and courage to write about motherhood, we face unique challenges, especially with nonfiction. One that looms large is how to write honestly about our own children, for whom we have unconditional love and no small amount of adoration. How do we find the distance to write more than the idealized version, to portray our children as the complex characters they are? How do we walk the fine line between telling stories honestly and protecting our own very real children?

4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Hynes Ballroom, Level 3 S235B. Tracy Kidder & Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: A Reading & Conversation, Sponsored by the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program. (Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Richard Todd) A reading and conversation by two noted literary journalists, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains and Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient and author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The event will be moderated by magazine and book editor Richard Todd, author of the memoir The Thing Itself, and introduced by Anne-Marie Oomen of the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program.

Reality is Sly, People are Complicated: The Facts of the Matter (Part Two)

November 20, 2012 § 9 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.

They shouldn’t.

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?

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