Monthly Archives: April 2010

PowerPoint’s infamy grows apace

A PowerPoint diagram clarifying U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Having gone on record against the narrative-killing malevolence of PowerPoint (“Unsure? Tell a story . . .”), I was pleased to see that the most popular story in The New York Times this week documents military commanders’ disgust with the fancy slide show. But we haters have little impact: recently someone asked me if I could give a presentation in PowerPoint on a magazine article I wrote. No and no!

The Times‘ April 26 story by Elisabeth Bumiller refers to a recent evisceration of PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal by retired Marine Corps officer T.X. Hammes, who writes in his essay, “Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.”

Bumiller writes:

Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat. . . .

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers—referred to as PowerPoint Rangers—in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

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NB: Offutt’s guide to literary terms

“nonfiction: Prose that is factual, except for newspapers.

“creative nonfiction: Prose that is true, except in the case of memoir.

“memoir: From the Latin memoria, meaning “memory,” a popular form in which the writer remembers entire passages of dialogue from the past, with the ultimate goal of blaming the writer’s parents for his current psychological challenges.

“novel: A quaint, longer form that fell out of fashion with the advent of the memoir.

“short story: An essay written to conceal the truth and protect the writer’s family.”

This excerpt is from “The Offutt Guide to Literary Terms,” by Chris Offutt, published in Seneca Review and excerpted in Harper’s.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, fiction, humor, memoir, NOTED

Jack: March 20, 1997 – April 17, 2010

Claire, 11, and Jack, .9, sledding at our farm in January 1998

Gary heard Jack was making his last trip to the veterinarian, so he stopped last Friday to say goodbye and to comfort me. “The only thing I can say is what my vet told me when he put our dog to sleep,” Gary said. “He told me, ‘You’re sad, but I’m not. Because I know this dog was loved. People bring me dogs all the time to put down because they just don’t want them any more.’ ”

As he spoke we looked across the lawn. Jack had lain down facing us in the grass, under the shade of a massive ginkgo tree. Everything has flowered at once this glorious spring—even the dogwoods and the redbuds together—and the

Happy kid, tired pup

breeze was perfumed with the mingled scent of lilac and crabapple blossoms. An acquaintance had just told me, “I’m from New England and we lived in Hawaii. There’s nothing like Ohio in Spring. You have to pay attention, because once it’s gone, that’s it.”

We buried Jack the next afternoon in the backyard between two aged crabapple trees, their limbs a bower of airy white blossoms. He was an old dog, at thirteen, but he was a little dog and we thought we’d get more years. Especially since we’d moved last June to the safety of upscale Westerville. Just before we’d left our farm in the Appalachian foothills, an embattled groundhog bit Jack in the cheek, and his head had swollen like a football. Then we’d had to have him stitched up after his fight with a big opossum; Jack moved to the city sporting a new black scar above his left eye. He defined “grizzled. But then, he’d been marked for death his whole life.

Eighteen pounds of bone and muscle, he was white with brown ears and had two tan oval spots, one on top of his head and one on his rump. In digging after varmints or hunting rats in our barn, he’d used his teeth to remove anything in the way—rocks, roots, logs—and he’d broken teeth and ripped out some at their

Wassup?

roots. He’d injured the bridge of his nose so often, using it as a shovel, that it wouldn’t grow hair; the pink badge of proud flesh puzzled our new city vets. Jack will live, for as long as our family does, in stories about how he earned his scars.

I’m thankful that Jack and I had a total love-in for six months before he got sick. With both kids at college and Kathy working 24/7 helping run a college, Jack was my constant buddy. He bounced down the hall before me at each dawn, wagging his tail. Afternoons, he lay at my feet. Evenings we took walks, deploring the insolent suburban squirrels, which needed chasing. At dinner, Kathy teased me for baby talking to him. Occasionally in those days Jack looked at me with absolute, melting adoration—a queasy look on the keen face of a Jack Russell terrier, and one that made me uneasy. Did I deserve that? Certainly not.

Knowing Jack loved me, I still felt jealous when he’d abandon me at night to sit beside Kathy. Kids too always feel this way about the family dog: even if he’s theirs, he seems to love momma more. Kathy usually fed him, and she never messed with his mind. Since I supplied his dialogue, I voiced perhaps the greatest source of his admiration every time she returned from the grocery store: “That bitch is slow, but man she can hunt!” It must be said, however, that Kathy had a problem with Jack’s ardent nature, specifically his sexuality, which continued despite neutering—though only with stuffed animals, which the kids subversively supplied.

I bought Jack for our daughter, Claire, for her eleventh birthday. I’d recently met Stacy Hall, a dairy farmer near Athens, and admired her bounding pack of white and brown avatars. She must have had a dozen Jack Russells then. I met Jack’s mother, Josie, a

Tom + Jack = Trouble x 2

homely white dog with a long body. Before I drove home with Jack, Stacy and I sipped coffee in her log cabin, and she got out an album. Photos showed her dogs attacking groundhogs, which burrowed into her pastures. And also assaulting raccoons and possums. These cute dogs? Oh, and the pack had killed Jack’s sire, Gonzo, Stacy mentioned. “Sometimes that happens.”

What?

Back then, I thought all little dogs were yappy but harmless. I’d never raised a terrier, just a goofy Labrador, and realized I hadn’t known what I was getting into. I looked at the tiny creature on the passenger seat of my truck. When I got home, Claire couldn’t stop grinning. But I went to the computer and finally researched the breed. Bred for 300 years to hate fur, these terriers are scrappy fighters. “You may think your Jack Russell and your cat are friends,” one web site intoned, “but you may come home one day to find your cat dead.”

Claire always had at least two cats.

Thus began our first adventure with Jack, socializing him. When he was about the size of a guinea pig, he growled at me for disciplining him. And I couldn’t tease him by grabbing his snout, as I had our Lab, because he’d look puzzled, and then he’d snap. This was funny, justified, and sobering. You had to respect the little pecker. I took him to Stacy’s to be dominated by her dogs, and she told me to get tougher. Our son Tom, then eight, would play rough, and Jack would bite. Afraid Jack would nip his face, I gave Tom his first and only spanking. Then I put Jack and his master Claire through two dog obedience classes.

All this worked. Jack mellowed; he recognized human authority. In fact, Jack loved people, and even dogs—though if a dog wanted to fight, that was just fine too. He was inherently comic, a canine id unleashed upon the world. When I

walked him on the bike path in town I learned something else: Jack was a chick magnet. “If anything happens to you,” I told Kathy, “I’m taking Jack for a walk.”

Just after Christmas this year, I noticed a swelling in his throat. Cancer it was, lymphoma. Dogs are like people this way: if they live long enough, cancer will take them. We kept Jack going with drugs for over three months, until we saw

Old man . . .

his suffering was starting to exceed the pleasure he took in our petting and feeding him. For a dog’s owner, it’s a tough place, because you feel you will put him down too early or too late. But as my sister said, when the time comes, you know.

The poignancy of a dog’s death is that it’s different only in degree, not in kind, from losing a human. Afterward, there’s that same resonant pause in which you watch and in which you observe how curious it is how the world goes on. You come home and expect to see him. You wonder where the years went. In the end, our dogs’ greatest gift to us is the saddest: they sprint ahead, pointing the way to our common fate.

When the vet stopped Jack’s heart, with an injection into a vein at the top of his left foreleg, Kathy and I cried. “He’s still warm,” she said as we tucked him, swaddled in blankets, into his little grave beneath the crabapple trees. In quick flashes in my mind’s eye, I saw us and our children, younger and happier than we knew. He defined thirteen lucky years, our Jack, now gone.

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CNF’s narrative blog contest

I like thick, type-packed, and otherwise densely off-putting literary journals as much as anyone—especially when they include something I wrote. But when the newly redesigned Creative Nonfiction arrived in my mailbox, I thought Hallelujah! I’ll be posting soon about their interesting interview in the new issue with Dave Eggers.

Meantime, Creative Nonfiction is currently seeking narrative blog posts to reprint in its next issue (#39: Summer Reading). They’re looking for “vibrant new voices with interesting, true stories to tell.”

Posts must be able to stand alone, be 2000 words or fewer, and have been posted between November 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010. Deadline for nominations is 12 p.m. EST, Monday, April 26, 2010.

To nominate a blog post or for more, go here.

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Filed under essay-narrative

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners. But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before?

I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.

Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.

Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir. However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.

He writes:

Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.

 

I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”

Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”

I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple.  You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole.  You’re using your imagination.  Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking:  “What was that?  Who were those people?”  So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.

In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:

There are things that you just don’t forget.  These things are imprinted onto you.  And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .

 

I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.

I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”

(Abildskov’s complete interview with Durrant is here on the Mary site.)

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, scene, subjectivity

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:

To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.

As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?

Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.

Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.

For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?

Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?

And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.

Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:

What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.

Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir, scene, subjectivity, teaching, education

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.0

The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning or shaping of events.

Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.

The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the “facts” and “truth.”

—David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

A year ago I aired David Shields’s original Port Huron Statement (apologies to The Dude) in my post “Against Narrative,” based on his speech, at a writer’s conference, that is the core of his cri de coeur, Reality Hunger. (Or maybe not a cry from the heart—Shields is an academic intellectual—but he’s incredibly passionate.) Now his book has the buzz and the mo. His broadside against tradition has its readers stimulated and annoyed, which surely was his aim. His preference for avant-garde forms reflects his sensibility but is an astute documenting of the continuing sea change wrought in postmodern life, especially by technology.

I found Reality Hunger highly entertaining but its particulars somewhat forgettable—what’s brilliant is the concept. What’s controversial is its theme: traditional storytelling’s meaning-making apparatus is passé. Mired in our manufactured and mediated and fractured environments, but equipped with recording devices, Shields says we hunger not for artificially cohesive narrative but for raw chunks of “reality.” (An interesting exception in the book’s nonlinear, though themed, format is his straightforward account of his own writing history.) His prescription is for art that’s contemplative, collaged, lyric, and documentary, for fiction in nonfiction, for any clever genre smashup.

David Shields, author provocateur.

As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.

No, narrative’s not particularly intellectual, but it is satisfying because it conveys and shares subjective experience. As I’ve argued here, humans filter everything through the scrim of emotion—an essential part of our existential tool kit—so we’re curious about what another slob feels as he slogs through this valley of tears. Bringing us this news is what artists have always done.

On the journalistic front, many traditional gatekeepers have abandoned news narratives that tried to be fair and balanced. Media firms are under pressure from cable and web and talk radio (or simply swamped by those competing voices as they attempt reasonable readings of events and information). The result is a serve-yourself buffet of kooky theories (don’t vaccinate!) and a smorgasbord of ideology-driven screeds (i.e. FOX; see also demagogue Lou Dobbs, late of CNN) that have stoked the partisan political rage we suffer. I never thought I’d defend mainstream journalism’s “objective” format, but there you go. (See True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo.)

Interestingly, Shields is the son of journalists who wrote for crusading liberal magazines but who admired “real writers,” novelists. This unusually sophisticated intellectual household drove him toward the desire to be an artist. After serving as editor of his junior high and high school newspapers, he was fired from his college newspaper for making up stuff (a brave admission, though he’s wily enough to have invented the transgression as a land mine for the literal-minded). A manifesto seems to have been inevitable. And his Reality Hunger is fun, and in its way important.

I got annoyed only when Shields attacked Tobias Wolff’s bestselling narrative memoir This Boy’s Life for being “naively straightforward” and for challenging it as nonfiction (a position inconsistent with Shields’s own tract) because the boy narrator is a “pathological liar.” So Shields says, glibly misrepresenting. As it happens, This Boy’s Life is preceded by an elegant statement about how, when Wolff’s memory of events clashed with his family’s, he sometimes “corrected” his account to agree and sometimes not. Wolff’s note reads in part, “[T]his is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him (and Wolff, who makes the same point, if you think about it, with far less sweat). I hasten to add that I’m not condoning what James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces, a dishonest memoir that he’d tried to sell as a novel. His publisher wanted a memoir for sales reasons. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And yet much of the criticism from journalists was self-righteous or smacked of hypocritically protecting the nonfiction franchise.

Anyway, hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.

The most interesting and subtle thinking I’ve found was published by the travel-story site WorldHum, a 7,500-word essay on the “inevitability of fictionalizing in some forms of nonfiction” by magazine journalist and book author Tom Bissell. In “Truth in Oxiana” Bissell points out that there’s a difference within nonfiction genres regarding writerly authority. Think of a newspaper’s bare-bones yet subjectively selected details in its report of a public meeting vs. a magazine essay set on a typical day (that’s actually a composite of many days) vs. a memoir recreating someone’s internal reality and external experiences.

“[W]e read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book,” Bissell writes. “Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us.” But, for writers, he says, “the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in nonfiction writing is clear and obvious” even as the “rigors of factual accountability shift subtly but undeniably from nonfiction genre to nonfiction genre. . . .

“The writer of literary nonfiction earns a reader’s trust with his or her vision, generosity, and relentless self-questioning; the writer of ‘Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry’ operates with the understanding that his trust is pre-earned by the gothic lettering of the newspaper for which he writes. Both kinds of trust are important, certainly, but only one opens us to the enlarging possibilities of art.”

Bissell continues:

Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but . . . I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising.

Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. May I remind you that Capote’s In Cold Blood . . . was attacked for its numerous and, now, well-documented “mistakes”? . . .

It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. I would widen the lens even further to include much, but not all, of “literary journalism,” for literary journalism—the kind, at least, with aspirations toward art—relies not only on memoir but the protean fibers of experience as it is seen, heard, and felt. Experience can never be felt or described in the same way by two people. It is these human gaps that literature fills.

Next: More on Reality Hunger, and how memoirists imagine themselves and their readers into the past.

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