January 25, 2010

The Problem with Nonfiction

I wrote today.

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t writing other days, but today I moved forward on what I’m supposed to be working on ~ a personal essay that I’m writing for some contests and to be critiqued by some good friends when we get together in April. Partly, today’s focus was inspired by my friends on Facebook who reported their extraordinary progress on their projects this past weekend. Way to go, guys!

I don’t mean to be down on nonfiction ~ as it probably seems on this blog. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction in my capacity as editor, freelancer, and friend (you know, people find out you do resumes …). It’s an art in and of itself. Because it’s so often short form, the art of nonfiction is unifying, making an argument, presenting a side. Whether it’s a resume, a newspaper or magazine article, or a technical report, you’re necessarily making a case for something because you exclude so much. You must select your points of view and your truths.

Short stories are short form as well, but within those parameters the writer is allowed to present more than one side, to view something from all angles, to slow way down. He or she is allowed interiority. Plot and fact are not necessarily the driving principles; for me, it’s nuance and emotional truth.

One thing I cannot abide in nonfiction, which sometimes happens in novel-length works, is the writer going inside someone’s head (other than him- or herself, of course). It’ll make me throw the book across the room. “As he stood on the porch, he thought of his dear mother.” This is NONFICTION, and as such, you cannot know what goes on in a person’s head at a particular time. Big no-no in my book. If you want to write that, call it fiction. I’m much more forgiving about creating dialog. There is external evidence on which to base speech patterns and manners of speaking.

What I feel when I’m writing nonfiction is constriction. I always want to add more. What about this? This part is interesting too. For example, right now I’m writing a personal essay about my high school sweetheart. I have a hard time moving forward because I don’t necessarily know where forward is. I know the timeframe I want to cover ~ so the basic plot ~ but it’s so complex, and for some reason, if I were writing fiction about it I’d be able to distance myself in a way I can’t in personal nonfiction.

There ARE lots of people out there doing nonfiction superbly.

I feel like I’m stumbling around here trying to explicate this in my own mind.

Maybe it all boils down to my life experience, the ways in which I’ve felt bundled in with someone else’s “factual” subjectivity, how I’ve felt my experiences are nullified by whomever is representing me. “The West is about cowboys.” “Women are angels” or “Women are whores.” Plus, being involved with a long-term Hatfields and McCoys lawsuit, I’ve seen how the facts have been misrepresented and how emotional appeal can carry the day.

There are few facts; there are lots of points of view.

What I’m Reading Today: Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of a Whiskey Robber for book club. I can’t decide whether I like it or not. A great story ~ obviously, lots of research went into it ~ with great history and compelling characters. I’m learning so much about Hungary, which I (shamefully) don’t know. Rubenstein’s language has great vitality, which on one hand I love but, on the other, it has lots of similes that get between the reader and the text, and half the time those creative energetic verbs don’t seem quite to work. Trying too hard. Plus, the book has that cardinal sin (for me) of nonfiction, “he thought as he sat there.” I’ll withhold judgment until I’m done.

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