Monthly Archives: December 2012

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

People understand the constraints

Solstice musings: poetry, nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

Winter Patio x

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms. In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

Poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” :

I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but might have developed it as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

This slight poem—and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre—has this background: my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” said our daughter, switching sides and rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water.

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

This post originally ran Dec. 16, 2008. For the record, I rejoice at the winter solstice—because we’ve hit rock bottom: each day we get a few minutes more light. A child of summer, my despair comes on June 21 when we have reached our apogee of light and each day shortens even as summer lengthens. Wrong, deeply wrong.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, humor, MY LIFE, narrative, poetry, structure

This, and THAT

Assault weapons, body counts & learning to be human.

 Flagx

Semi-automatic, high-magazine-capacity firearms—assault weapons—need to be controlled much more stringently in America. Duh, I imagine women readers responding. There’s more ambivalence among men. This position is new for me, someone who grew up in a hunting family, steeped in military service and heroic special forces exploits and with a brother in law enforcement. Many if not most cops opposed or were ambivalent about the last assault weapons ban. They’re gun folk.

I’ve used firearms as tools—as a hunter years ago, and for many years as a farmer—and I understand guns as tools. I also understand the love of guns as beautiful objects with a craft that approaches art: few artifacts are as well made or invested with such fine workmanship, materials, and durability. And 99.9 percent of gun owners, or higher, pose no risk to anyone. Quite the contrary, perhaps. There’s merit in being able to defend yourself and others.

But the ease and rapidity with which assault weapons, rifles and pistols, can be fired and reloaded make them unfit to be circulating widely in a civilized society. They are why our law enforcement officers are now armed with military grade weapons that make their old standby, the .38 special revolver, look like a quaint toy. Glued to the TV over the weekend as news of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded, I couldn’t help but think how much slower a killer Adam Lanza would have been had he been working a bolt-action hunting rifle. Or even firing the classic eight-shot Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun. Or for that matter using a semi-automatic .308 deer rifle with maybe a six-shot clip. He had multiple thirty-round magazines. Just as even gun fanatics had to accept the U.S. ban on fully automatic weapons, they can adjust to reduced clip capacities and to parameters that limit the sale of weapons of little or no use for hunting or competitive shooting.

A crackdown has been the gun lobby’s fear about President Barack Obama from the start. In their paranoid narrative, gun control has always been his hidden agenda. Before his first inauguration, gun stores could hardly keep assault rifles in stock and sold out of ammunition nationwide. I can only imagine the brisk business they are doing now. Obama did not mention gun control in his powerful speech at the memorial service for victims, but he did call for action. He is responding as a leader should and asking a question. What is the will of the people? Maybe it is to make our schools more like fortresses, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. A silver lining in this tragedy seems to be some bipartisan movement toward restoring the assault weapons ban that expired on George W. Bush’s criminally negligent watch.

Mental health services seem a vital part of this equation. America’s system has holes in it, our ability to institutionalize the mentally ill radically limited. I have no answers there, though I’ve also heard no evidence yet that Lanza’s mother considered him ill or a threat or sought help for him. The fact is, however, that we are group animals, and even healthy loners need a certain level of human interaction. You can’t legislate that, but we might recognize formally what everyone knows intuitively and some know professionally: radically isolated people, especially if they are young men surging with testosterone, are at risk to themselves and society.

Amidst the flurry of early erroneous news reports about the shootings, we learned that Lanza’s weapons were owned and registered to his mother. That much appears true. But some of us, trying to make sense of a woman who owned weapons like that, trying to make a story—because we understand life through narrative—put two and two together: “She bought them for her son. She must have been crazy.” The story became more complex when we learned that she was a gun enthusiast who took her son to the target range. They were her guns.

Guns don’t kill, people do, goes the gun lobby trope. But I can’t help but wonder if anything like this would have happened had Mrs. Lanza had been a dog nerd instead of a gun nut. Say she had six dogs and had involved young Adam with her in Labrador retriever rescue work. Fact is, people need people, but dogs are about as good. And she and Adam and the other Lab fanatics would have had their own little society, helpful, harmless, and happy. He’d have had canine buddies and human contact beyond his mother. This is the loving alternative I picture.

Because a dog says one thing to a troubled kid; a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle says another.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE

My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

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Those best books lists . . .

Strayed’s Wild my top memoir; Ford’s Canada my top novel.

Strayed's Wild

I’m on track to have read some sixty-seven books in 2012. I know that because for the first time I kept a reading log, which is heavily weighted toward memoir: thirty-plus read, including re-readings. Maybe that’s because memoir’s been my own writing project, though by now I’m a true fan of the genre. The rest are a smattering of history, theory, short stories and novels. There were standouts and duds in all departments—books unlogged because unfinished. I’m working on my complete favorites list, and so far it includes, along with the memoirs and novels, a short story collection, a work of journalism, a how-to book, and a history. (Admittedly I find myself wanting variety on my list.) The best indicator of my heart’s true tally: the thirty titles in boldface (“to re-read”) on my reading log.

The idiosyncratic nature of preferences is shown by my slow-to-grow admiration of Junot Diaz’s blockbuster novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I just finished; from the start it’s obviously great, so full of energy and so confident in its story, but it was late to capture me the way a couple other novels did this year, maybe because of its shifting narrators—a real feat, technically and imaginatively—when I was most invested in Oscar’s story. Of course any writer and most readers can see advantages in multiple narrators: the urgency, voice, and warmth of first person allied with multiple perspectives on key characters and events akin to third-person. I have a feeling that Wao, with its fearless slang and colloquial vulgarity, is a time bomb that will detonate for me when I need it. The other thing against it making my top twelve list is that I read it so late in the year, and books need time to marinate and resonate—at least for me they seem to. It’s been hard to get a draft of twelve, so I better stop before I talk myself into listing it . . .

Ford's Canada

And although I say here that Richard Ford’s Canada is my favorite novel, I’ve just realized that I’m mentally exempting probably my finalist list’s greatest novel read this year, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, simply because it’s an older book I just got around to, whereas Ford’s is indeed a 2012 publication. I can see why it would be easier, cleaner, and just plain better to stick to 2012 books for these best lists, like the major review outlets do. Except that’s not the way real people read. Also, while I admired McCarthy’s masterpiece I enjoyed Ford’s novel in a rare childlike way. Notably missing in action so far from my draft of the final twelve is the great Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, a lyrical wonder. I have no idea why. Except like Wao I read it late. It is in boldface, however, among the top thirty, on my log.

Who said these lists were fair, let alone logical?

Next: My top twelve books of 2012.

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Filed under fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, reading, REVIEW

Perchance to sit

I report a crucial difference between adults and college students.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended—William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Almost Christmas

Sunday night, I leashed the dog and took her upstairs. I had to grade a set of student essays, and the dog, Belle, had to accompany me because of a looming event at our house. My wife would soon host sixty freshmen. It was a holiday mixer for her class and for two others that share the theme of leadership.

How many?” I’d kept asking. “How many students are coming?”

“Sixty, in three classes. Probably only fifty will come.”

“Only fifty?”

So Belle, on the rug, and I in my leather Laz-E-Boy, heard the freshmen arrive downstairs. The noise of conversation rose up the stairwell, though not the roar that attends an equally large gathering of adults. I’ve hid upstairs for some of those, too, and listened to the happy cheer rising until, to be heard, everyone was screaming. From a slight remove: almost scary.

“Richard!” I heard Kathy call up to me. “Do you want to bring Belle down?” She’d forewarned me of this summoning, a showing of the family dog to the students.

So I ambled down with Belle. And what did my wondering eyes behold in our living room but students everywhere. Mostly they were sitting, which was a feat, given the numbers. Our coach held, oh, about twenty kids. Two big overstuffed chairs somehow held about four—each. Three unseated girls, looking forlorn, approached Belle and began to pet.

I tried to walk the dog around, but Kathy was desperately fetching odd chairs and there weren’t many paths. I had to leap back as Kathy, hair flying, shoved a leather ottoman past me from our study. The three lost girls settled instantly upon it like sparrows on a ledge.

’Tis the season of holiday gatherings and aching backs. For those, like me, who’ve worn out their spines, or who are merely middle-aged, the price of standing can seem high. If not right then, then the next morning. And this is what Kathy had expected, two roomfuls of standing students. Socializing, you know, like adults. She had sensibly allocated two rooms for this, our living room and our dining room. They would stand and talk and nibble on snacks for an hour. Only an hour—they knew this. Eighty adults have done as much.

But, alas, they sat.

From the packed living room, Belle and I made our way into the dining room, which seemed to be a transient space. Liminal, a writer might say. Just a few students, and a couple teachers gasping for air. Most of the room is taken up with the long table that I grew up around; Mom drove to North Carolina fifty years ago to buy it. On the table were urns of hot chocolate and coffee, trays of cookies, and vats of gummy bears.

Beyond lay our sunroom—kind of a cross between an enclosed porch and a freezer—that was packed to the rafters with the rest of the students. “I didn’t have it set up!” Kathy hissed. “They just went in there. I thought they’d socialize. They want to sit.”

In point of fact, they did.

Belle has seen some odd human behavior, no doubt, but I swear she did a double take, kind of like someone coming upon a violent Greyhound bus crash, there at the threshold of the sunroom. We couldn’t enter it beyond a pace. Finally I turned and led her back upstairs.

Now I sit too much, like most adults. If my waistline won’t let me forget that, neither will The New York Times, which runs an article every couple of days on how bad sitting is for us. The latest, on Saturday, upped the ante:

But a closer look at the accumulating research on sitting reveals something more intriguing, and disturbing: the health hazards of sitting for long stretches are significant even for people who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated recently in two studies, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

On the treadmill this morning, getting in my thirty minutes of activity before I sit for the rest of the day, I thought about this. But mostly about those students, who are so very active but who have the sense to sit down when they socialize. Or is it fear of each other that makes them sit? The questions only grew. Don’t weary soldiers collapse like this? Does each Age of Man possess, indeed, its wisdom?

“We learned something last night,” I told Kathy when she came down to the basement to say goodbye. “We’ll know next time. But why?”

“I don’t know,” she said above the treadmill’s whir, eager to get on with her day. “They wanted to sit.”

College freshmen. I can almost bring it back. In life somewhere between children, who run everywhere, and adults who when they stand do so as if rooted, they sat.

The older I get, the less I seem to know. So much is unknown, really. And how often do we truly see—and therefore learn—despite our age-barnacled selves? Kathy may be ready to put the past behind her, but not me, not yet, not this time. I’m here to witness, here to tell you. And I can only report what I saw last night with my own eyes.

Those kids, they sat.

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Use of self in fiction & nonfiction

The reblogged post above is by Cristian Mihai, a young Romanian fiction writer, a self-publisher with a big following, and a talented blogger with many fans. After my last post, which mused about differences between the practice of fiction and nonfiction, I was struck by Chuck Palahniuk’s quote regarding the use of self in fiction—it applies as well to nonfiction. Especially to personal and dramatized nonfiction, to memoir essays and books.

Writing about the broken or pained self without the mask of fiction, however, takes an honesty and a tolerance for nakedness that not everyone possesses or desires to experience. Maybe some would say an egotism. Each writer draws upon experience and the self’s responses to life, but memoirists do so more directly, while many fiction writers learn to draw from themselves indirectly and by inference. Memoirists use the self much as poets do, it seems to me, but without the scrim of possibly fictional artifice provided by a poetic structure . . . Richard Gilbert

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Filed under emotion, fiction, honesty, memoir, NOTED, subjectivity