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 compress 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 . . .