Pickle Jackpot: Write Better with Comedy

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

indexBefore I was a writer, I was a street performer. Not the dude-on-the-corner-with-a-guitar kind (though that’s street performance, too), the perform-at-festivals-for-huge-audiences kind. And when I worked in English, I had to be funny. The scripted lines had to be funny. The improvised lines had to be funny. And when an improvised line got a good laugh, we revised it, polished it, and put it in the show in a way that still sounds spontaneous after a thousand shows.

When I lived on tips, I had to be funny or I didn’t eat. Dinner’s a great motivation to get better at one’s art. I’m a verbal comedian more than a physical comedian, so I spent a long time working on words. We often did four shows a day, 15-20 shows a week, which is a lot of chances to try a different word order or phrasing. A punchline is funnier if the dialogue tag comes first (“And then he said, bada-boom!”). Individual words are funnier if they end in hard sounds (splat, smack) than soft ones (orange, cushion). Anything with a k in it is funnier (pickle, jackpot). And the best part is getting the audience to put the words together and write their own mental joke for an apparently innocent line (“Don’t worry! I’m a professional!”).

Now that I write the words down, now that I have to trust the reader’s brain for the delivery, comedy serves me well. Even when the essay isn’t funny, the right word order sells a punch or a sob the same way it sells a laugh. Humor helps the reader hope for the storyteller, even when the situation’s dire, and sadness phrased well becomes a kick in the teeth.

As George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” With memoir and nonfiction, we get to slow it down a little and meander. Writing comedy helps us learn to tighten up, so that meandering is a choice.

At The Huffington Post, Siobhan Adcock writes in Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Class:

Because structure. You’re making a meticulously crafted monkey suit — you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it’s also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large (“Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down” — see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.

Ms. Adcock’s got a terrific list of things writers learn in a comedy-writing class, and if you’ve ever thought gosh, I wish my wordcraft was better on a technical level, comedy is for you. Check out the whole article.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Blanket or a Gun

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

RankineCitizen-HiResClaudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines essay, image and poetry to describe how mounting racial aggressions in daily life and the media–some intentionally offensive, others errors consistently made–affect a person’s abilities to speak, write, perform, and stay alive.

At BOMB Magazine, Lauren Berlant interviews Ms. Rankine on the daily encounters that make up the “tone” of citizenship, the weaving of fiction and nonfiction, and the use of mixed forms throughout her work:

Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. [Your question] presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!

The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.

She also discusses the difficulty of attempting to “reroute the content I am living,” within the frame of a world pushing back against her truth.

Read the interview at BOMB.

Ms. Rankine also has a fascinating website. It’s well worth checking out how she presents her visual, collaborative video, spoken, and multi-genre work in a graphic format that frames and reflects her subject matter.

 

Throwback Thursday: Are Blogs the New Journals?

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

nichole-bernier-author-writerIn April 2013, Nichole Bernier’s novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D told the story of two women, one revealed entirely through her journals, found after her death. A reader asked her, with the current popularity of blogs, weren’t journals a bit dated?

In Writer’s Digest, Bernier responded:

Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep for themselves privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals what banks are to money that used to be hidden in mattresses?

In a thought-provoking article, she discusses blogs, journals, first-person essays and the public and private faces of self-expression.

Read it here.

The Grudge: On the Journey of Writing Memoir

July 29, 2014 § 47 Comments

By Allison K Williams

climber
Words on the page.

I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll up, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.

Now, I sort out themes and carefully choose incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—my temporal continuity notes in all-caps, places to fill in more details highlighted yellow, the color of cowardice. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward instead, discover what should be in the past, what is missing from the path, and put it there. Cut-and-paste, so much easier than living it, so much scarier to revisit in words that route that thrilled me when I didn’t know what lay ahead.

Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). And yet the writer must never lose the rope entirely—the ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.

The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not just how you felt, but what happened.

You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not a hero (If you are a hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.

My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.

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Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.

Stand Up Naked and Turn Around Slowly

July 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

man-wearing-barrel-and-suspenders-after-divorce1How does our willingness to “get naked” on the page form our voice, and how does voice hide our nakedness? What’s more naked: writing fiction and baring all, or using one’s life as fact but perhaps more judiciously?

Dinah Lenney’s craft essay “Not-Quite-Naked” is part of a series at TriQuarterly. Ms. Lenney, the author of Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir and most recently The Object Parade, writes:

Here comes that confession (she starts to disrobe): first, as with acting, I don’t write to disappear, but rather to locate myself. But wait—which self am I talking about? What a stunner to discover—to have to admit—I am not only or even essentially the mother, the wife, the teacher, the student, the neighbor, the friend, the actor, the writer—even as I have tended to write firsthand accounts out of those relationships and situations. But wait again: Don’t fiction writers use first-person narration? Don’t they break the fourth wall? But they’re writing in character, yes? As if I’m not? Of course I am. Does it make a difference—does it say anything about my state of undress that I’m telling you so? I’m certain it does.

Read the essay at TriQuarterly.

As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction

November 5, 2012 § 32 Comments

Recently, the journal TriQuarterly (re)published the anonymous essay The Facts of the Matter.  The piece troubles many of the conventions of creative nonfiction–including the obligation to be factual–in service of the argument for factualness in nonfiction. Brevity is pleased to host this roundtable conversation with the Anonymous author and three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction.  Thank you to everyone who participated.

This will be a two part discussion, with the next round of questions coming largely from reader response (posted in the comments section below).  –Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor

1. Would each participant in the discussion introduce themselves, please, with an emphasis on why you are a stakeholder in the conversation?

SH: I’m Sonya Huber, a writer of creative nonfiction and an assistant professor at Fairfield University. I’m the author of three books: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Before entering academia, I worked as a journalist and as an organizer for various social justice causes. I suppose I am particularly interested in this conversation because I believe personal narrative can reveal surprising and necessary truths that can give people the power to change the world or small pieces of it.

MF: This is Matthew Ferrence, essayist and assistant professor of creative writing at Allegheny College in Northwestern Pennsylvania. To this conversation, I bring a growing interest in the potential of fractured narratives, experimental structures, and other busting-ups of expected form. But, I’m still also a fan of the straight-ahead (such as it is, y’know, with all the meanders) Montaignian essay. My other stake here is my commitment to nonfiction as artful truth, with all of the messiness that brings to the table.

NS-F: I’m Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction, modern American literature, and our Editing, Writing, and Media Program, which focuses on writing and new media (or as we tag it, “Writing for the 21st Century). I’m the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and my wife Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). My articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. I am the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. I’m the father of two daughters — one of whom is a high school senior about to go off to college.

Anonymous: Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a “meta-nonfiction” for an anthology that was published earlier this year; I was delighted by the prospect, as meta-narrative offers a chance to at once compose a piece and comment on its form (in this case, to write an essay and contemplate the troubling fashion for passing off fiction off as fact in contemporary creative nonfiction). As for myself, the usual applies: I’m a writer and professor whose work has received a Pushcart Prize and been published in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the like.


2. As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed.  To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated.  Could you describe your own reaction, as readers, to the essay and it’s central conceit?

SH: My reading experience definitely affected my reaction to this piece. A colleague and writer friend–Ioanna Opidee–forwarded me the link via email in the middle of a rushed and busy day. I could see based on the content of her email that she was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.

Out of concern, I opened the link on my phone. Like Ioanna, I didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece–which I took to be an essay. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding. TQ had inserted a hint in the intro about how to read the piece; I would argue the lack of such a nod toward an honest or even complex contract with the reader within the piece itself represents one of the essay’s failures. In my experience, the brief “how-to” from the editors of TQ were blasted away by the narrator’s sentences.

As I drove between appointments, my mind was thrown into turmoil. It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.

You could say I read the essay “wrong.” Instead, I would argue that this is how we read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader, one with as much time and silence as Montaigne in his tower, one that has the ability to shut out the world when he wants to. And this piece–like those containers with compressed spring-snakes inside–demands you read this all at once.

That day, I was not that reader.

I used all the tools I had to read “The Facts of the Matter,” and apparently I did it wrong. I read further, picking through the paragraphs in parking lots, in a doctor’s waiting room. I slowly digested each paragraph as it unfolded. This writing wanted to break my heart, and I would let it.

In some way, though, am I not the ideal reader, the thoughtful reader? Instead of devouring the piece as a math quiz with a solution, I slowed down to consider each sentence. In between reading those paragraphs, I drove and I mulled.

The worst experience was that I made a list. I made the horrible list it asked me to make: the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.

I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.

“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did.”

I ate dinner with the presence of that rapist in my mind. I mulled over very different truths than the story-problem the writer intended. I mulled over this story of the rapist. In a way, I knew right away that the ghost-essay (the one that would soon not exist) was horrible but necessary. I thought it was a kind of evil bravery to admit this: there are rapists in our midst. I thought about the reckoning that would happen, the backlash in creative writing programs, the necessary examination of continued sexism, the complication of close mentoring friendships, the relationships between men and women in the larger creative writing community and in academia.

I was ready to engage in that challenge, to see the world. To see the true world, which seems like always the point.

Then after that evening of mulling during dish-washing and laundry and putting my son to bed, I went back to the piece of writing and read the postscript, saw a slim justification–“Would it change things if I were a woman?”

I’ve met liars of both genders. So–no. There are women rapists. Now the only thing I know is that I believe nothing else the narrator said.

The writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through; this makes sense, as the piece of writing provides an example of the ends justifying the means. The writer seemed to assume that being a woman would be a situation I would never consider. The piece of writing seemed to tell me that its ideal audience was a man who needed to be shocked. I, a woman, felt condescended to as I read the final move of the piece, an argument not meant for me at all, but meant for someone who disagreed with the writer’s position regarding truth in nonfiction. The narrator seems never to have considered that it might affect a woman in this way.

What’s sad is that the writer and I had been on the same side: we agreed about the dangers of playing “fast and loose” with the truth. We had both apparently shared the trauma of assault—and that was a central reason, from life experience, for why I simply could not read this essay like a math problem. Its content is the opposite of a math problem. “The Facts of the Matter” presented a flesh-and-blood experience as an abstract falsehood. It’s not even fiction, because fiction is an attempt to tell a version of the world’s truth, packaged as a story. This was a made-up story packaged as true, which makes it a lie. The brief closing, its presence as an afterthought, apart from the narrator’s voice throughout the piece, seemed to leave me only with a question about the “truth” contained on that page, a doubt which echoes so much of what is uttered to degrade women’s experiences: rape is a lie. She’s making it up.

So I wish the essay had been about making cheese or stealing apples. The choice of a shocking image was unfortunate, as violent as the violence against truth it wants (rightly) to protest.

MF: Certainly, the subject matter of the essay struck hard. Shock is an accurate descriptor, since what I was reading was so abhorrent. My reading was also shaped by my purpose as reader: I hadn’t read the essay when I was asked to take part in this roundtable, so I first entered into the text with the knowledge that it was somehow “about” truth in nonfiction. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to engage a pseudo-confessional of sexual abuse, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find an essay that aligned a story of such abuse with a defense of the necessity of factuality in nonfiction.

And part of my initial reaction was to ask myself, What’s so crazy about this piece? Keep in mind, this is because I was thinking about reading this in the context of the larger question of truth in nonfiction, and in many ways I found this particular essay utterly unsurprising on that matter. Shocking, yes, because of subject matter, but not really engaging in any particularly deep way the sorts of truthy questions that interest me.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve considered the way that the deceit or misdirection or identity shift functions in a piece that is, at heart, a polemic. The author-we’ve-agreed-to-call-anonymous has written an argument, not so much an essay. It’s a bit more Bacon than Montaigne, and certainly far more pointed than the artistic round-a-bout that I think of (and prefer) when I think of an essay. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well,” and part of the reason that the rhetorical deception of the piece is jarring and, I think, hard to justify.

NS-F: Sarah’s question and Sonya’s and Matthew’s responses pushed me to think about about how and when I read this piece, what my first reading was like, and what colored that reading. I read this essay after a male ex-student of mine sent me the link via Facebook, suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to “truth” in nonfiction. The fact that my student had referenced this piece was, of course, a tip off and affected my reading. The next day before I had had a chance to get to the piece, a current student of mine, a young woman who is pursuing an MFA and is an excellent essayist, asked me in class if I’d read it. I said I hadn’t but would. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but something in the way she inquired suggested that she found the piece disturbing and confusing, and again, I figured something was up.

 My truth antennae fully at attention, I read the piece and, like all of us, found it disturbing, troubling, confusing, and intriguing, but finally, mainly, ultimately manipulative. As a father, son and husband whose own family has been personally and forever affected by rape and as a social activist who came of age during the second wave of feminism, I was disgusted and outraged by the events depicted in the piece. But, (and with this piece it seems there is always a “but”), I felt cheated and expected to read the piece in a way that didn’t feel quite right. The overabundance of detail (beginning with the reference to Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as viewed that week in Vince Scully’s art history class), the doth-protest-too much assertions of truth (beginning with the title and the opening line), and the narrator’s flat affect and cerebral analysis left me wondering, though again, the seed of my skepticism had been planted by the way my students had recommended the piece as well as Sandi Wisenberg’s cautionary introduction.

Then came the punch-line postscript, which brings us in turn to question 3.

ANONYMOUS: I’m grateful to know that the piece was shocking–it’s meant to be. Not for the sake of mere frisson, which would be cheap, but to underscore a serious problem with contemporary American creative nonfiction and to remind us that we should be shocked whenever fictions are passed off as facts, whether in the political realm (fictional WMDs) or the poetical (David Shields and John D’Agata’s recent arguments to that effect).

Sonya Huber’s point that the writer’s contract is not an honest one is, I would say, mistaken, given that the piece has never appeared without an editorial frame to point up its meta-narrative nature (it was originally written, as I said, for an anthology of meta-narrative, and was reprinted by TriQuarterly with the editorial commentary Sonya notes). Moreover, it reveals by its second crot that it is assaying the question of fact and fiction, which is a pretty clear contract with the reader (experimental narratives often take a few pages to establish their terms, since a single crot often will not serve–as when Joan Didion shifts narrative points of view in Salvador–it’s not a false contract with reader, but a complex one).

I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when  the reader is not clearly signalled. That practice should piss us off; I’m grateful that this smart panel of readers takes art seriously enough to GET angry about this. We should. Not about my piece, I’d argue, but about the increasingly glib disregard for fact in CNF.

It’s worth noting that when TriQuarterly staff read this, some wanted to call the cops and report a crime: I could not have hoped for a better response. That is a sane and humane response to awful facts–to take action–and the real problem with blurring the line between fact and fiction in CNF is that it confuses us about how to respond, whether to respond, and encourages paralysis. We should be shocked by that.

As to the notion that “the writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through,” it is simply inaccurate–this isn’t a question of justification; my gender arises in the piece only as a means of triggering the vertiginous horror we experience when that trapdoor opens in nonfiction and we find out that we’ve been lied to.

As to my not having considered a reader’s possible response, Sonya’s right: I didn’t, and I’d say moreover that I shouldn’t: that’s not the artist’s business–calculating audience response is the work of advertising, not art. (Had it been about cheese or apples, I doubt we’d be having this conversation–it’s about a shocking subject precisely because playing fast and loose with the facts is a shocking subject. Form and content relate to each other, as they should.)

As this is an essay, my job was to consider the question from as many angles as I could, to weigh the matter of fact and fiction in CNF, to consider it in the light of history, personal experience, news reportage, the borrowed authority of quotation, as any good essayist will do.

The essay is not alas “an abstract falsehood”; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. The post-party rape on a couch. The pregnancy. The stats. The DRC rapes. The legal case in Israel. The quotes. Save for a few intimate details, which are not lodged in any public ledger but are nonetheless true, you can look up the facts of the matter.

Finally, as to Matthew’s claim that this is polemic not essay, I’d note that some of my very favorite essays are polemical, so the adjective hardly disqualifies the noun: think of Joy William’s delightful “The Case Against Babies” or Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” both of which have worn quite well. Bacon’s essays seem to me narrowly didactic, not really my taste, but the comparison is not unflattering: still, my piece weighs a question, offers evidence, and ultimately aims to provide the reader with an experience of the horror of deceit, so as to show how forced entrance into imagination or body are each profound violations.

It’s my hope that the outrage inspired by the piece will be put to good use and spur us to be equally outraged by the glib disregard of facts in contemporary CNF.

3. On Anonymity: What does authorial anonymity allow in this work, and what is the cost of it? What can we learn from this experiment about the relationship between authorial voice and creative nonfiction?

SH: This is a huge question, and not one that I’m sure I have an answer to. The one thought I had is that the reader doesn’t actually become attached to a name. Sentence by sentence, the reader becomes attached to a narrator as he or she is built and presented on the page. I believe the reader has every right to assume that the narrator in nonfiction is the central guiding presence in the work. In fiction, we are on guard for “character,” so our trust level is theoretical, not freighted with reality-testing and trust. In nonfiction, we contemplate our real relationship with the narrator as he or she presents himself–very intimately–as a real person. While we all write in personas which are versions of ourselves, the signal of anonymity increases the reader’s assumption in nonfiction that the narrator’s truths are weighty and offered at great risk to reputation. I believe the “anonymous” byline on this piece made me even more drawn into this narrative than I would have been if the name given were simply false and seemingly gender-neutral.

MF: I don’t have much to say about the anonymity. In general, I’d argue that nonfiction should be signed: what we do relies on the tension of a real author opening the self up. Without a listed author, there is no self.

NS-F: My friend, mentor and collaborator, Carl Klaus, recently published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, the best book we have on the problem of the narrator in the personal essay. Of the contradiction that creates this problem, Carl writes that the essay puts “one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature” while cautioning us that at the same time “the ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”  Shortly thereafter, in support of his claim about the constructedness of persona, Carl quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ great essay on the essay, “The Singular First Person”: “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.”

The day I read “The Facts of the Matter” was Sanders’ birthday and on the birthdays of essayists I often post a picture of them and a quote by them on Facebook. I opted that day for a different passage from “The Singular First Person”: “You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you. In fact, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character. If the words you put down are foolish, everyone knows precisely who the fool is.”

So, you see the problem — a slippery, constructed, postmodern subjectivity and my own foolish self. In “The Facts of the Matter,” the narrator is first a man, a man who is professor and an unapologetic rapist, and then a woman, a woman who is a feminist and a writer of “meta-nonfiction” attempting to skewer the fast-and-loose use of “facts” advocated by writers such as David Shields, John D’Agata, and, according to the author (incorrectly, I think, because she is misreading his rhetorical questions), Robert Atwan. In both cases, the narrator is cloaked in anonymity, but in the first instance, we come to see that “anonymous” means only that the character is unnamed, while in the second case it means that the author is protected. But protected from what? The outrage of readers? The responsibility of defending her position publicly and as herself? Or, more charitably, is she protecting the friends and the sisters of her friends who were actually raped? Or again, less charitably perhaps, is she protecting (inadvertently perhaps) the actual “male professors” whose “by and large verbatim” quotes she puts in the mouth of her rapist-narrator?

By raising these questions I don’t mean to suggest that the author is not speaking “from a region pretty close to the heart” or that I “detect the wind of phoniness.” I don’t. I believe that the author cares deeply about rape and that the piece is an honest attempt to confront the horror of rape and show how rape is about power rather than sex. An essay, however, can be honest, but not successful, or not as successful as it might potentially be. The anonymity is also part and parcel of the attempt to write what the author calls “meta-nonfiction.” I think that the attempt to write “meta nonfiction” is misguided because personal essays are always, in a sense, “meta nonfiction” because they are always (or almost always) include reflection and so are the story of a mind thinking, a writer writing. By pushing this further (e.g., by dividing the piece in two, by employing anonymity, by withholding information, by pushing irony to the point that it becomes an inside joke, etc.) the author becomes distant and controlling. At first I was reading a fictional short story, but I didn’t know it was a short story, for I thought (was supposed to think) it was a personal essay. This short story only became a personal essay when I got to the postscript and was now required to reconsider my reading of the essay that was all along a short story, but only a short story for the author, and not for me. (Got that?) For me at least, all this layering and rethinking and distance makes the personal essay less personal, something more akin to a thought experiment being orchestrated by a wizard (a very bright wizard) behind a screen. So, finally, I felt manipulated and perhaps because I felt manipulated, all that much more put out that “the flesh and blood author” got to claim anonymity.

And now, gentle reader, I feel I should tell you that the anonymous author authorized Sarah to tell us who she is (and she’s someone I already knew). It’s not my role to out her and as I tried to suggest above, I think I understand some of why she adopted anonymity, but now I wish she’d come out from behind the curtain.

ANONYMOUS: As I stated above, the only “invention” in this piece is the conventional one in memoir and essay, that of a “persona,” which here is a stew of several parts Evelyn Waugh and a dash of Nabokov.

The rationale for Anonymity is simple: the piece requires uncertainty about the author’s identity to have its effect. There’s no effort to protect myself in this: my identity is clearly stated at the end of the lengthy interview that appears in the anthology for which the piece was written (Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot), should anyone care to know. But my identity is irrelevant. (The wonderful writing teacher Bill Roorbach used to say that you knew when you had stopped reading a piece and it had begun to “read you”–by which he meant that it had triggered some personal emotional reflex–when you stopped talking about the words on the page and started to talk about the writer. I wonder if perhaps that applies here.)

The essayist is often effaced in the essay–where subject takes precedence over personal biography: we know an essayist’s thoughts, not his or her dining habits (unless they are the subject of the essay). Fretting about my identity is a distraction. The essay is not about me; it’s about a shocking contemporary practice: not sexual assault, but our all too convenient disregard of facts.

As to Ned’s claim that I am “misreading” Atwan’s public speech, for which I was present, as he was not, I must admit that I find suspect any literary criticism that would claim to have the corner on truth in such matters–interpretation is not monotheism after all; there is no single truth here; to claim one is in possession of that would seem a lie.

Finally, as to whether the piece succeeds, the fact that David Ulin in the LA Times considered it worthy of his smart and admiring exegesis, and that many other publications (from Manhattan to Spokane to Kentucky to South Carolina to Kansas City) have picked it up; the fact that we’re discussing this here and that I’ve heard from several readers of the anthology that they consider the essay “one of the ten pieces every CNF student should read”; and the fact that it’s being taught and discussed in classrooms, would all seem to me to suggest that it has succeeded in provoking the conversation it sought to inspire.


4. On Falseness in Nonfiction: This essay purports to argue against lying in creative nonfiction, and yet it relies on a number of lies–from the conceit of its narrative voice to the fact that we, as a panel, are only pretending not to know the identity of its author–to function.   Ultimately, does the essay function better as an argument for the possibility of falsity in nonfiction rather than against it? Or does it succeed in spite of the fact that it seems to argue against its own validity?

SH: I think this piece of writing functions as an example of what happens when you cling too tightly to being right: you pull out every big gun possible to win against what you see as wrong or bad. In this case, the enemy is the position of purposely falsifying information for the sake of art. “The Facts of the Matter” purposely falsifies against art instead of falsifying for art. In a way, it sets itself on fire to protest artful falsification. As such, it is an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all. I think it is tragic, and it is performance, but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction.

We know there are several kinds of “true” and several kinds of lying. One test of truth in nonfiction, for me, is the question of whether I would give this piece of writing to my mom, my non-writer and non-professor friends to read, whether I would give it to my sister. The question of truth in that case circles around the goal of offering something to add to someone’s life—even if it is a difficult and hard-won truth. There isn’t that nugget of accessible truth that I could share with people outside that limited world of people who discuss John D’Agata or even know who he is.

MF: Anonymous her/his-self writes in the Postscript that the “piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us” and that it is “intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfictional where there are stakes…, as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts…”

It is in this shock that the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay commits a foul against not essaying nor creative nonfiction but, in fact, rhetoric. It relies on a combo Slippery Slope and Strawman strategy, where the stakes are raised by the direct content of the piece (the sexual assault) and not by the supposed intent of the argument (engaging the necessity of truth in nonfiction). In that sense, the piece fails to persuade me of the dangers of D’Agata, Shields et al, very much because the sensationalized conceit of the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay takes to the point of absurdity the fluidity and flexibility other writers call for.

So, thinking about Sonya’s response to her initial reading, a response driven in part by the temporally fractured way she read the piece in our digital world, I agree that as an article it fails to play by the rules of our reading. The shocking subject matter incites fury, sadness, and pain because the lede of the article conceals itself within the extended metaphorical non non-fiction.

Yet at the same time, if I consider the piece an essay, then I disagree that an author should need to consider the manner of reading. An essay is a full thing, must be read in total to be understood. Thinking of the piece fully (and by “fully” I include the way I first read the piece, Postcript, author notes, header and all), I find myself defending the authorial choices this way: it doesn’t lie or deceive at all, in full. The deception is revealed, and the effect on the reader is to confront them with the shock and anger that comes about from that deception. Thus it pinches the technique of the lie as a means to argue against the lie.

But it’s still a polemic, and that part of it I find harder to defend, since nuance is necessarily left out, and with it the artistic potential of artful misdirection and textual prestidigitation 

NS-F: I very much like the ways Sonya and Matthew have approached this question. I too think this piece is a “polemic” that shows “what happens when you cling too tightly to being right.” As Matthew suggests, this polemic has two targets — rape and a particular kind of nonfiction. The problem, I think, is that the targets get confused and the issue of rape gets subsumed by the issue of truth in nonfiction. We are, I believe, supposed to see the narrator above the postscript is someone whose sexism has led him to lie, become dissociated from himself, objectify women, and rationalize his cruel and violent attack. And I do. But don’t we know that already about rapists? Or, as Matthew put it, isn’t that fictional rapist a strawman? Or as Sonya suggests, the rape has, in a sense, become “a big gun” pointed at John D’Agata and David Shields, or at least at John and David’s understanding of the role of truth in creative nonfiction.

 The same day I was reading “The Facts of the Matter” I finished a review of Randi Saloman’s excellent book, Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, and it suggested to me another approach. Saloman distinguishes between the essay and fiction (mainly Woolf’s novels) by looking at our experience reading the two genres. A longheld trope for the essay is that it is a conversation. For Saloman, this means that the reader is on more even terms with the author, engaged and responding to the author within a digressive, recirculating, meandering form. With a work of fiction, she argues, we are more passive and give ourselves up to the author’s imagined world following a plot determined by probability and some kind of logic. When Woolf mixes the two — in A Room of One’s Own, for instance — she creates what Saloman calls a “counter-factual” or “speculative” essay. To create this essay she uses fictional elements, most notably the character of Judith Shakespeare, but we know the character is fictional and participate with Woolf in speculating on the what that Judith’s life might have been like. Judith is fictional but we know she’s fictional. She allows us to imagine an alternative history and an alternative future. She’s a fictional character within an essay that we know from the start is an essay. She is not a trick and if A Room of One’s Own is a polemic against sexism, it is a kind of non-polemical polemic.

ANONYMOUS: I love this question, Sarah: it’s very smart (and one raised by David Ulin in the LA Times, as Sonya helpfully pointed out in a separate exchange). In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain. So I’d strongly disagree with those who would say that this essay affirms lying in CNF, the blurring of those lines; judging by the panelists’ reactions, I’d say it enacts a pretty strong argument against that practice, which was my aim. I hope the piece tests the proposition that “facts are irrelevant” in nonfiction, as Shields has claimed, and finds to the contrary.

That’s also why I strongly disagree with Ned’s claim that my essay is somehow a “big gun” held to D’Agata’s head or Shields’. That metaphor misses my point by a mile: this essay is more like a trap-door that opens beneath us all (as, I believe, is the popular disregard for fact in nonfiction). Ned’s reading would try to make the essay a personal matter, when it’s not: it’s a formal one–a problem with form that we are all having now.

As for the essay’s form, Ned suggests that I might have done better by borrowing Woolf’s methods, but I’d note that her speech was written almost a hundred years ago and that each artist creates the form necessary to her or his time: Woolf needed to argue for women’s capacity for greatness, so invented Shakespeare’s sister; in the 21st century, we need to be reminded of the horrors of passing off fiction as fact, so I invented a narrator (at least in part.)

But I worry that the panel seems to be largely missing those points here–both formal and substantive. So rather than continue to respond to their claims point by point, as I’ve tried to do above, I would simply direct them and readers of the essay to the wonderful and insightful exegesis of “The Facts of the Matter” by David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-the-reading-life-sexual-assult-essay-invention-20121023,0,4763279.story

Despite the unanimity of this panel, happily a diverse array of responses to it can be found on line; a few of these are below:

http://www.tarpaulinsky.com/2012/10/recommended-reading-facts-matter-triquarterly/

http://www.bookforum.com/paper/archive/20121024

http://mhpbooks.com/the-question-of-facts-in-non-fiction/

I hope, for all our sakes, we will continue to speak ardently about why the facts matter.

Moderator’s Note: Responses from SH and Anonymous were stricken from the roundtable discussion because of confusion among the participants about whether or not there would be opportunities to reply to one another. The intention had been that there would be this opportunity, but Anonymous asked that we limit each respondent to one initial statement. Because I believe that I wasn’t adequately clear in my initial directions to the panel and to Anonymous, I have agreed to strike this response, but in the next round we will not redact anyone’s comments and cannot guarantee that any person will have the final say on a specific question.

Creative Nonfiction as Cultural Cosmetic Surgery

October 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Triquarterly has reprinted a peculiar, disturbing, not-what-it-seems-at-first essay that uses the account of a sexual assault to interrogate recent discussions about the importance of fact in nonfiction. We at Brevity imagine there will be some shouting before this one is concluded, and we are fully intrigued.

S. L. Wisenberg’s editor’s note at the very end invites folks to weigh in, and we agree. Weigh in here, weigh in there, weigh in both places. Here’s a taste of the essay for you, and a link to the full work below.

It’s become fashionable lately to question the importance of facts in works of creative nonfiction. “In our hunger for all things true,” David Shields says in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “we make facts irrelevant.” Given that any narrative involves a selection of details and thus a distortion of sorts, facts—so the argument goes—aren’t important. As long as an account tells the truth—psychologically, emotionally—facts aren’t required.

The thoughtful, erudite writer Robert Atwan, series editor of the Best American Essays, recently questioned the necessity of facts to creative nonfiction at a conference in Manhattan, where he spoke in praise of “the literary art of fabrication” … Atwan asked his audience, “Is it possible that a piece of personal writing can be grounded in fiction and still be considered an essay? If some determined graduate student conclusively discovered that [E .B.] White never owned a pig, should we consider [White’s essay] ‘Death of a Pig’ a short story?. . . Is all that separates an autobiographical essay from a story fidelity to fact?” …

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I wonder if Shields and Atwan would be so cheerfully flexible about the facts if the nonfictions were of another kind, if it were their doctor’s unfactual diagnosis (appendicitis, say) that led to an unnecessary surgery. Would they be as easygoing were it an unfactual accusation that prompted their incarceration for an indefinite period in an undisclosed location by means of extreme rendition? … How about an insurance adjustment that insouciantly undervalued a home destroyed in an all too factual fire?

And if they would not find such nonfictions acceptable, I wonder why they (and we) tolerate the unfactual passed off as fact in our nonfiction art. Is it because we believe that art—that compass of the culture—doesn’t matter as much as medicine or insurance? Or is it because we—like the powerful in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who couldn’t bear to read a frank assessment of their failings, prompting social critics to couch critiques in fictive terms—cannot bear to face the facts, to look in the literary mirror and behold ourselves honestly, truthfully, portrayed? Has creative nonfiction become a form of cultural cosmetic surgery, helping us hide our flaws from ourselves, convincing us that the facts don’t count?

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Does it matter, in an account such as mine, who was raped, under what circumstances? Does it matter if there was a girl, a couch, if there could have been? Would it change things to know that the girl on that couch got pregnant that night (a fact I would only learn years later from her close friend)? Would it matter if in fact the girl was conscious; if when she woke, he finished and left her there and never spoke of it? Would it matter if I were that girl?

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Read the entire Essay: http://triquarterly.org/essay/facts-matter

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