|Image: Margaret Stratton via USA Character Approved Blog|
Writing prose is like making sausage ~ no one wants to know what really happens behind the scenes. They don’t want to see the hog slaughtered, nor the bits of gristle and offal that go into the mix.
Last week, I got to see a reading by the wonderful and provocative John D’Agata. I took a lovely workshop with him in 2000. An essay of mine that started that class will eventually continue to evolve into a memoir, I think.
One of the many things I learned in that class was that the Medieval French word essai means to try, and that’s exactly what it is for John. An essay is not a genre of nonfiction; rather, it is a mode, an approach to writing. It means to leave yourself open, not to try to come to a conclusion too quickly. Don’t go into a piece with a fixed idea of what it is. Even up until the final editing, be open to the true nature of the piece, and don’t be afraid to cut or make drastic changes up until you final submit it.
It also means that, for John, the essay is closer to memoir or personal essay than it is to a nonfiction magazine article. For those of you who haven’t thought of it in this way, it might come as a surprise, but memoir or personal essay is not a recording of “the facts.” It is the recording of one person’s interpretation of the facts, or the effect of the world on one person. It’s purely point of view.
Now, if you want to get technical, everything is point of view, even so-called unbiased newspaper reports. Where do reporters get their facts? From someone, a point of view, telling them what they saw, whether it’s a police report or a first-hand account. They pull together these and the physical information they find and then they present it as a coherent narrative. Is your life a coherent narrative? Is anyone’s? We would like to believe it is, and that’s why we are so strongly drawn to narrative, but the real world is much more complicated than that. Heck, think of this one thing: how much of the real world did the report leave out? Ay, that should get you. I mean, how does the reporter ~ or the lawyer or the researcher ~ know they haven’t missed some vital bits of information? Did the guy kill his wife because he was jealous? Or was it because deep down, though even he didn’t know it, it reminded him of a childhood humiliation related to his mother? Or both? Why couldn’t it be both?
My point here is that the world yearns for a coherent narrative, and we believe that what we are presented with is the truth. I would say that this drive is so strong that we will believe even out-there kinds of things if it seems coherent. We believe movies present real history, don’t we?
It’s always odd to me that when you label something as fiction everyone wants to know how close it is to the writer’s life and when you label something nonfiction they’re trying to figure out where you lied. I have news for you: there are a lot of “lies” in nonfiction. That’s the sausage part. Do you think someone can remember dialog from their childhood? Do you think life can be reduced to 12 column inches? People don’t want to know this.
Yes, I do agree we try to come to a consensus on what constitutes an acceptable amount of lying. I have that line myself, of course, and I do say that John’s line is not mine. I wouldn’t have changed 31 licensed strip clubs in Vegas to 34, as he does in the essay. (In a book labeled nonfiction, I wouldn't write the inside of anyone's head but my own, as happens in Devil in the White City.) That’s because, like form in poetry, sticking to the facts that you know will often force a more complicated truth, and that’s what fascinates me. How do you take the stuff of life and make it art? But John says the reason he changed it was that it sounds better ~ and don't poets do that all the time?
However, John’s point as I understand it is that what he writes should not be labeled “nonfiction,” that there should not be just two binary categories, fiction and nonfiction, because this like everything else lies on a spectrum. Is memoir nonfiction? Some people think so, but really it’s not because it’s more inside-the-head than outside-the-head as community consensus. Genre is complicated because the world is complicated ~ no matter how much we would like to believe in binaries.
For the reading, John partnered with the writer Matt (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Bread Loaf last year) to do a reading from the book The Lifespan of Fact co-written by John and the fact-checker Jim Fingal, a book that’s caused quite a stir. It follows the fact-checking process between John and Jim on John’s piece “What Happens There,” which was published in the Believer. The book itself is a constructed thing ~ who would want to read through pages and pages of boring email text? It reads like dialog, and it is at times hilarious. But a curious thing happened as I sat and listened. John would read his side of the argument, and I would nod and think, “Yeah. Yeah! He has a very valid point.” Then Matt would read Jim’s side of the argument, and I’d think, “Yeah. Yeah! That’s so true.” I don’t think it’s because I’m weak-minded or just because they were effective rhetoricians; I think it’s because elements of both arguments are true.
Our loud communal insistence on the legitimacy of fact in nonfiction and memoir points to our collective discomfort with what we know in our hearts to to be true: Life isn’t that simple nor that easy. We’re peeking behind the curtain, and we don’t like to admit what we see.
PS I'm aware that this assertion cuts at the very basis of journalism, and I want to be clear that journalism is the best tool we have and that I believe in the validity of the endeavor. I am simply pointing out an often-unacknowledged point.
PPS An interesting discussion of the nuances here by Dinty Moore.