Along those lines…

June 7, 2008 § 5 Comments

Curious myself, I typed the phrase, “imaginary nonfiction,” in a search engine and out popped a Japan Times article on the unsung heroes of literature: translators. (Making its point with the question, How many translators can you name?) In a nutshell, the article celebrates Japan’s tradition of celebrating its translators.

Now, what do Japanese translators have to do with imaginary nonfiction? Not much, in terms of our discussion here. But this might be useful; the article takes a stab at defining the genre as one “in which the author takes a real down-to-earth occurrence and flies with it.” The example they give? A “story” by contemporary Japanese writer, Motoyuki Shibata, called, “Ghosts All Over.”

(Wouldn’t the label “story,” however, indicate that it’s fiction? Is imaginary nonfiction called a story, or an essay? Right; it’s probably both. Memoir, then.)

In it, “Shibata and his wife go to America and rent a house, even though they have been told that it is haunted. [. . .] Ghosts do appear; and, as it turns out, they are ghosts of themselves. Everywhere he looks he sees his wife: on the sofa, then at the dining table…”

Lately I’ve been writing about the daydreams I entertained when I was a child. They’re not “memory,” exactly, because technically, they’re not of the stuff we call experience. They’re experiences of another kind (like Shibata’s ghosts), staked in “real” desires and anxieties that I was certainly experiencing and working through in this medium of the imagination. Do these written-daydreams constitute imaginary nonfiction, then? Is this what I’ve been writing all along? Why am I still struggling to understand, exactly, what part of the “down-to-earth occurrence” is imaginary, and what part is non-fictive? And why are we continually haunted by this ratio?

Maybe I should take up translation.


On Rejection

May 20, 2008 § 3 Comments

RI am sure that I knew him, that professor who wallpapered his office with every single rejection letter he ever received. But upon relaying the anecdote recently, a friend finished my story and added, “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”

OK. I admit that it’s possible the wallpaper part was passed down, some sort of sweeping tall story told across English Departments everywhere–but I know a professor in college once told me he made a point to save every letter. I remember feeling very surprised that he should even receive one rejection letter, let alone enough to paper a wall. (Maybe that’s where I got the wallpaper–has it become a favorite cliche?)

“Isn’t that a little masochistic?” The same friend said to me when I showed her my own collection, which I keep bundled in the top drawer of my desk like some stash of love letters. And in a perverse way, that’s what they are. Evidence of an unrequited love of writing. Or maybe that’s how I cope with the particular hazards of this job–of receiving regular rejection, and worse, having to occasionally deliver it.

Of course, it’s not just a “job.” If it were, there would be no archetypal professor and his wallpapered Office of Rejection. The masochist.

In response to my friend’s charge, today I threw the stack away–to be sure, in the recycling bin. All those self-addressed-stamped-envelopes. All those thin strips of paper that register a particular insult: “What, I don’t deserve a full sheet?” Even the occasional godsend, the scribbled note at the bottom. And yes, that one from five years ago that was so nasty and strangely personal (have you gotten these?), I passed it around in a glorified show-and-tell–no doubt, another coping mechanism, though my peers didn’t believe an editor would actually take the time to write that much and needed to see it for themselves. (They said I should be flattered, but I’m not sure…) This too got tossed.

And I don’t feel any different, any lighter or better for it. I feel pretty indifferent, in fact. So much for the love-letter analogy. But at least my office maintains its minimalist decor–the only thing on the walls, my stepson’s finger paintings. Real love letters.

I’ve read a few humor pieces lately that poke fun at the rejection letter (which has its own entry on Wikipedia–though what doesn’t?). I personally like this one:

If you have more to add to the mix, or want to share your version of the wallpaper story, or suggest more pleasing ways Brevity might revise its rejection letter so we don’t end up being passed around in a show-and-tell, please do.


Oprah, vaseline, déjà vu–and writing

May 14, 2008 § 7 Comments

I’m just wondering–has it ever happened to you that you’ve been in the throes of writing and something you’re typing that very second pops up on the television screen or in a conversation peripheral to you? Like some kind of writing-deja-vu. (Even though a psychologist-friend recently debunked the idea of deja vu…what a buzz kill.) Recently I was working on an article and happened to turn on the TV for background noise, when suddenly the very thing I was writing reverberated in the voice of (who else, right?) Oprah. Now, maybe this isn’t so coincidental, considering it was Oprah, and on any given day she could be talking about everything from post-Holocaust literature to the wrinkle-fighting wonders of Vaseline. But that day she gave voice almost simultaneously to a thought I was having on the page. And I’ve had other experiences like this–just yesterday, in fact, when a librarian leaned over my shoulder and remarked, “That’s funny, someone else was just in here looking up that old article.” (That old article, in fact, covered a plane crash that happened thirty years ago, killing my grandfather and uncles.) I drilled her with questions: Who was it? A man or woman? Young or middle-aged? She couldn’t tell me much, just that it was recent-enough to feel uncanny–two people in search of the same story. (A story that meant profound horror for my family. What possible meaning did it hold for someone else, three decades later?) “You don’t forget something like that,” she said. And I imagine you don’t, in a small library in a small town. But when I’m writing, everything starts to feel uncanny, which makes me wonder if it really is–or if it’s something else… Some enigmatic aspect of the writing process itself. Joan Connor speaks to this question best in her essay, “On Writing and Telepathy,” which you can read here:

At any rate, it’s fun to think about, not unlike the pleasure in swapping ghost stories. So, you got any?

– Rachael

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