Monthly Archives: September 2009

Nonfiction’s intimate appeal

MFA student John Silvestro, studying structuralism for his English 600 class at Northern Kentucky University, sent me some of literary Contrast TreesSizedtheorist Jonathan Culler’s musings on how readers respond to texts. Culler, quoted here in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, may help explain the appeal that literary nonfiction has for some readers and why memoir is so stunningly popular:

“As soon as we know we’re reading a piece of fiction or poetry . . . we read it differently than we would read a real letter or journal: we know we’re entering a fictional world, and this creates a fictional distance, so to speak, that carries with it a kind of impersonality that would not be present if we knew we were reading a factual account of a human being’s personal experience.”

John wrote, “It is obvious that his main intention was to speak about the mental state a reader assumes when he dives into a work of fiction. But indirectly he is showing that literary nonfiction gets the dual effect of having its readers assume the ‘fictional’ mind-state while simultaneously remaining in the real world. My guess is that this creates in the reader an added level of intimacy.”

Culler’s books include Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.

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Filed under audience, fiction, memoir

Unsure? Tell a story . . .


I read my first criticism of PowerPoint  before I’d consciously seen many presentations. It probably flowed from Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, whose essays “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” and “PowerPoint is Evil” damn it as cognitive novacaine. Citing Tufte, the board that investigated the space shuttle Columbia disaster implicated the software, used during the crisis, for what was allegedly a flawed response to the ship’s danger. (See “PowerPoint, Killer App” by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post.)

I can’t speak knowledgeably to that, but I do study storytelling, and recently I’ve noticed PowerPoint’s danger for any users—from businesspeople to educators to ministers—who want or need to tell stories. PowerPoint is fatal to stories.

The software is being misused any time the speaker’s primary goal is storytelling—it’s astonishingly effective at killing personal narratives and personal arguments. Among other things, it flattens heartfelt content and subtext, destroys narrative pacing and structure, and makes what should be personal scattered and bloodless. And everyone knows this. By now, a Pavlovian stupor settles upon the audience when the fancy slideshow begins.

Probably okay for certain presentations if used intelligently, PowerPoint reduces the user who would tell a story to a mere host who can only point witlessly to the elephant sucking the oxygen from the room. At best, such a speaker appears to be selling something, not telling a story, the most potent way our species has discovered to receive meaning.

If you need to tell a story, that human thing, stand up there and try without a technological overlay. Anything is better than using PowerPoint thoughtlessly, even flailing your arms and bursting into tears. I say unto you as I say unto myself: When in doubt about what you should do, when you aren’t sure if your audience really needs bullet-point factoids, when you need to make an introduction and fear waffling on and babbling, just tell a story.


Filed under audience, evolutionary psychology, narrative

Daydreaming, attitude & audience

Charles Allen Smart (1904–1967), author of eleven books of fiction, memoir, philosophy, and biography, was best known for RFD, his 1938 bestseller about returning to the land on his family’s ancestral farm. After his service in WW II, depicted in his memoir The Long Watch, he became writer in residence at Ohio University, the press of which returned RFD to print in 1998 under its Swallow imprint and with a new Foreword by Gene Logsdon. Smart’s thoughts, below, on the writing process, are from his address Letter to a Sunday Writer, posthumously published in 1969 by the Rowfant Club of Cleveland. The short book also includes some of his poetry and his commentary on the books and essays he published—and on those he completed but burned.

” [A]t the age of forty-seven, with incipient ulcers, and wife a wife, dog, and country place to support, I have become RFDorgimpressed by the extreme importance, certainly for any kind of writer, and probably for any kind of man, of sheer daydreaming. . . . My notion is that we should take care to keep on daydreaming vigorously throughout our lives, attempting only to make our daydreams less personal and more firmly rooted in the outer world than in ourselves as individuals. Good daydreaming requires a strong sense of the possibilities inherent in any situation, and is at least the forerunner of imagination.”

“[W]riting of any kind is . . .  a matter of attaining, somehow, a superior state of mind in relation to yourself, to the experience or object that interests you, and to your possible reader. . . . In relation to your possible reader—and this is especially important in all the forms of non-fiction—you have some idea of [the reader’s] mind and experience, and you have to have towards him an attitude of friendly respect, neither too chummy, like the newspaper columnists, nor too austere and pontifical, like T.S. Eliot’s.”

“If the attainment of some such attitude is the chief job in writing, how, then, does one attain it? . . . We must bungle, and bungle, and bungle again, watching ourselves and the world all the time; and every once in a while, perhaps for a few moments, perhaps even for months on end, we do attain some such state of mind. The ego falls away, so that hopeless, full of zest, curiosity, good humor and wonder, we find our minds roaming, becoming suddenly incandescent, and then settling down happily in an intense concentration that teems with invention and resource. If only while writing . . . we know that we are writing damned well.

“I can sometimes approach this state of mind . . . by revision of a job that is clearly bad. This is the chief value and hope of revision: not to tinker mechanically for better effects, but to get a fresh vision, a new tone. Another thing that I have learned is that there is more in my mind than I normally can believe possible, and that I have always to strive to reach ever deeper levels of concentration. . . . [T]hough beginning in the unconscious, [this] is completed only in extreme concentration. Another thing I have learned is that although my interest in something has to be intensely personal and even troubled in origin, it can’t remain so: it must move toward . . . serenity.”

“The final step, delivery in full to your reader, requires you to have an even clearer vision of that reader’s mind than you need for fiction. Your own vision of the material and your own vision of your reader will together, almost always, rather quickly and surely dictate the form required, and any listing of the ways to write an article, an essay, an address, a report, a travel book, or what-not, is academic and presumptuous. Depending on the writer and the reader . . . every piece of non-fiction has its own unique best form, which can be as artistic, and as satisfying in that way, as any piece of fiction.”

“During the last few years, in this academic world, I have heard my share of addresses, essays, and formal or informal lectures on many subjects, and all of these have impressed on me ever more deeply the fact that a job of writing or speaking is much less technical than intellectual and emotional. Most of these speakers have been passably literate, or even accomplished in a technical way, but very few of them thought and felt with the accuracy, force, and subtlety that any segment of reality demands, and that any good audience or reader has a right to expect. In non-fiction, the evils of our time are superficiality, pretentiousness, and many different kinds of jargon or gobbledygook that are used . . . to mask ignorance and feeble or dishonest thinking. . . . [I]n the long run, despite all the successful windbags, we can’t escape it: we have to educate and civilize ourselves.”


Filed under audience, discovery, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, NOTED, revision

Honesty and chronology, part two

William Zinsser addresses the issue of fidelity to chronology in his On Writing Well, and I was surprised by his answer. Perusing the thirtieth anniversary edition of this sober classic on nonfiction, I expected Zinsser to be very conservative in all matters regarding literal truth, but after a long career of successful freelance magazine and book writing he’s practical about quotes and timelines. He approves of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s composite quotes and blended timelines in his profiles. Mitchell apparently spent years, in some cases, with his subjects, and would meld their conversations and encounters with him.

“Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time,” Zinsser writes, “he used a dramatist’s prerogative to Zinssercompress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months . . . he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated . . . [the subject’s] truth; there has been no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.”

Conflating quotes and creating one jaunt around the neighborhood from several such rambles is, literally speaking, fiction. But to convey truth, and artfully, and even for fairness and representational accuracy, Zinsser supports these techniques in nonfiction. He likes the richness of composite events, and in the case of quotes points out that all writers who take notes must “juggle and elide.” His own standard is to draw the line at creating anything from whole cloth.

In writing a memoir I’ve discovered that memory should be questioned—I caught it adding to one incident, probably because of the way I had felt during it—and that insight reinforced a strict constructionist impulse. If you only imagine that your father was wearing his red London Fog windbreaker that day on the boat, you say that. You go there. Maybe you end up writing about how he was color blind, everything a shade of gray—like your relationship. In this way, nonfiction’s art flows into and out of the ragged holes in narrative. In this way, perhaps, reality art is different from fictional art in its portrayal of the collision of self and world.

John Updike addresses basic disconnects between memory and fact in his memoir Self-Consciousness, giving readers the dual effect of straightforward nonfiction and impressionistic fiction. Early in the book he has a nice scene where, as a high school student working on an art project after school, he realizes that his teacher and his stern principal appear to share some secret romantic life. He adds, “To this quiet but indelible memory attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.”

Another answer is to go for deeper scenic power by simply putting your father in that red jacket if that’s the truth you feel in the scene you’re creating. Or if that’s how he typically would have been dressed. Write the emotional truth based on historical truth. I’m wary of that decision but understand it. I haven’t yet faced the issue of whether I think, for me, it’s okay to move that day on the boat, the one where you caught the big fish, into a different year. So far, I’ve found that honoring chronology, when and where it can be teased from memory, leads to a powerful narrative and to surprising insights. Maybe that’s because the labor involved imposes rigor and leads to more rewriting.

If I felt that moving that day served truth and preserved narrative, should I do it? Does such a move put a writer on the road to the disgrace of A Million Little Pieces?  Zinsser does not seem to think so. At the other end of the scale there’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of the celebrated memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, who administered a lie detector test to herself to ensure she hadn’t winged it anywhere.

But what does she consider winging it? How solid anyway is writing? Words aren’t life itself, but symbols. Readers simply want a story that works and which keeps its promise. That promise is the issue, but whatever answer a writer reaches as she tries to hit her sweet spot of Truth should be conscious and considered. As Zinsser’s rules imply—and he wrote the bestseller on practices in mainstream nonfiction—writing is also—inherently and inescapably—a performance.

As Robert Frost said:

“The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.

How  to score while playing by the rules? What are the rules? More to come . . .

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, dialogue, fiction, honesty, memoir, narrative

Honesty and chronology, part one

Truth is a disputatious concept in memoir. I’ve said that nonfiction shouldn’t involve invented characters or scenes, unless the author cues the reader to such imaginings, because readers understand the implicit promise in the genre to abjure sleight of hand. But “memory has its own story to tell,” Tobias Wolff argues in introducing This Boy’s Life, meaning that the subjective memories of which memoir is made are the truth. And memories are tumbled in our minds into creative reconstructions to make emotional and symbolic truth of life.

What this means is that, at the least, memories have scant respect for chronology. Chronology may be the most “natural” way to narrate a memoir (or essay), yet anyone trying to do it realizes how difficult it is and how artificial in its own way. In order to furnish narrative drama in a memoir, actual timelines must be chipped free of the sense the mind has made of its own experience. And vexing minor issues arise: if the writer remembers something happened at one point, because in his honest recollection that’s when it occurred, is he bound to adjust when he realizes, during his fifth draft, that it happened a year later? Or does he decide the significance of the mind’s creations on a case-by-case basis?

Some of those who argue for memoir as literature, as an artful construct, think this issue is ridiculous: of course you goBookForum with the inner truth!

I’m torn about this. Rigorous inquiry into events can help both insight and narrative. Yet a writer might become boring or ineffectual—few can write about childhood, for instance, without accepting childhood’s truth, which makes a Jungian hash of chronology. In memoir, is chronology an exception to the public’s putative desire for literal truth, or is it the canary in the coal mine of Truth? This issue is at the heart of a debate among memoirists about whether memoir must be driven by narrative, must “read like a novel” as most readers and publishers wish, or whether it should be more honestly discursive, intellectual, probing.

It’s bracing to realize, as I sweat such stuff, the contempt some fiction writers have for memoir, or at least for memoir’s claim to truth because it’s real or factual. The clinging to exterior rules appears to signify to these critics a lesser art form, however popular it may be. Of course rules don’t hinder art, quite the contrary, but fiction writers and poets are free to choose their own rules on a case-by-case basis. If a poet’s writing a sonnet, there he goes. Once a novelist chooses her point of view, she’s usually committed herself to play the story a certain way. (My view of forms is of course traditional; the avant-garde—more on this, below—hates the tired tools that only underscore craft’s artificiality.)

I thought of this reading an interview in the current BookForum (Summer 2009) with acclaimed Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who said, “Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. . . . To tell a story, you have to—not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.”

He goes deeper into his view of memoir’s aesthetic failure:

“Literature, to my mind, starts from some sort of personal space—and then it has to go beyond that. Whatever experience you may have had, whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that’s meaningful beyond yourself. And because it’s transformed at some point, it stops being about you. The person in my fiction is not my life, so we can talk about it. If it were my life, what would we have to say about it? Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature. Confessional space is solipsistic: I’m the only one here, you don’t get to enter. You can watch from the outside and as a voyeur, and that appalls me.”

Novelist and memoirist David Shields is similarly testy about anything that would “misposition memoir as failed journalism”—though he admires memoir, as he defines it. Amidst a fun diatribe he made against narrative at Ohio University’s literary festival in 2009 (see “Against Narrative” on this blog, May 12, 2009) was his argument for memoir as a form of “poetry”—that is, as a species of imaginative literature:

“When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don’t say accusingly, ‘But did this really happen the way you say it did?’ We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit.  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. We persist in seeing the genre as a summing up of life, even though that’s not typically how the genre is used in the great rash of memoirs that have been published in the past twenty years or so. When we house memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we take the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously.  We act astonished, even dismayed when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that memoirists reimagine the past, but we’re constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with the transgressions of a recidivist pedophile. I think we need to see the genre in poetic terms. The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and I think once writers and readers make their peace with this fact, there will be less argument over the ethical question about the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’ . . .

“Memory is a dream-machine, a de facto fiction-making operation. . . . We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir). We have no memories from our childhood, only memories that pertain to our childhood.”

He’s got his answer, a desire for unfettered nonfiction. Hemon has his, a disdain for the banality of memoir’s mundane promises. And I’m struggling, awkwardly in the middle with questions and partial answers. In part two, I’ll try to find a middle way between literal and impressionistic approaches to memoir, focusing more tightly on the narrow issue of honesty and chronology in memoir.


Filed under aesthetics, creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir

A nifty concise essay

David Bailey—magazine journalist, restaurant critic and worker, foodie and barista, knockabout North BaileyshoesCarolina writer, and my friend—has posted a delightful concise essay, “Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes,” on his blog, My Pie Hole. It’s a ramble, with visuals, voice, and flow. A taste:

“I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for wear — and leaked, especially when you stood at an industrial dishwasher for eight hours or when you waded around in a pool of duck fat that you had just helped to spill. . . .

“Why spring for an expensive pair of chef shoes, I wondered. Instead I switched to my venerable dress wingtips, witnesses to any number of funerals and weddings. In a way it was a gesture of optimism.”


Filed under essay-concise, essay-narrative, flow, NOTED