Category Archives: essay-lyric

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began by Joe Bonomo. Orphan Press, 248 pp.

There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.—William Faulkner

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Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

Here’s an example from “Caught,” which moves from his adult self’s sexualized encounter with two strangers—two college girls acting up—to depict his adolescent self’s furtive research into sex at his neighborhood newsstand:

One weekend afternoon I discovered that the manager of the newsstand had stocked a ground-level magazine rack with digest pornography, magazines like Penthouse Forum and Family Letters. My heart racing, I cased the store like a petty thief, strolling self-consciously up and down the aisles feigning interest in Creem magazine, soon recognizing that if I stood directly behind the rack, reached in surreptitiously through to the front, and discreetly pulled Penthouse Forum through the rack back toward me, I could prop it up harmlessly between Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac.  . . .

And so I remember vividly the instant the manager’s thick hand crashed through the magazine rack and clutched at the magazine I was holding. Startled, I looked up and saw his eyes peering at me through the magazines. The store spun away from me in a swirl of fear, and in a lightheaded haze I felt my feet lift from the ground. Memory seduces us with claims to legitimacy and to truth, though I remember graphically the long moment it took for the manager to sweep around the side of that rack and to lean down into my face, his eyes ferocious behind thick rim glasses.

Sexuality runs as one theme through this collection, which made me realize how seldom creative nonfiction even mentions the topic of sex in passing, whereas fiction fairly reeks of it. Not that it’s a big deal here, just another thread, as in life, but arresting in its candor. Equally unusual is the spiritual theme in some of Bonomo’s essays, and perhaps a riskier one than sex. In fact I first learned of his work several years ago when he read his essay “Occasional Prayer,” collected here, in Ohio University’s chapel where it’s partly set. The essay opens with an adult ritual, Bonomo and his wife praying as they set out on a trip, and depicts how and why Bonomo returned to prayer in college. One thing I like about his essays on faith is their roots in a frankly utilitarian view of religion, which after all is most usefully about practical matters—not abstractions like whether an external God exists but how we might live more humanely.

From “Occasional Prayer”:

My occasional prayer finds me less reaching a higher state than desperately shedding ego. Perhaps this explains my impulse to write autobiographically. Does self-addition wiggle from its straightjacket by turning outward to others in an attempt to make larger humane sense? And I wonder, can I pray for that. Prayer does not change God, writes Kierkegaard, but changes him who prays. . . .

Amy and I are back from our drive later, and I’ll repeat to myself what she’d said in the car when I asked her why her prayers are longer than mine. More people to say hello to. More people to stretch toward on the thin prop of prayer. More to caress in absentia, to tap lovingly on a shoulder knowing that touch is a foreign language, not spoken here. There. And I’ll wonder, who do I have to say hello to? Who do I have to surprise, moist-eyed, my mouth moving oddly, slowly, the other tilting his head tenderly to make out the words. Alone to myself in my room, my words perish on the mirror.

In an interview with the campus newspaper where he teaches, Northern Illinois University, Bonomo said his essays are about “the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language [. . . an] attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.”

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began won the Orphan Press Book Contest. Bonomo’s other books include AC/DC’s Highway to HellJerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School.

He answered some questions:

Your new book is organized into four themed parts, and within the sections medium-length essays alternate with short lyrical meditations or tone poems. How did this structure develop, and once you had it how did it influence individual essays’ content or placement within a section?

The overall structure materialized near the end of the process. At some point I realized that I was going to have these longer essays and these shorter, micro-essays or prose poems together, that they were going to have to work it out. Once I took a step back and recognized the book’s essential themes, I saw clusters of essays that worked well together, and they began to fall into these four sections. The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces in such a way that would, one, imply my subjects and interests rather than name them directly, and two, allow the longer and shorter essays to work together without feeling as if they were gathered together artificially. I had to trust my instinct that in the experiences I was exploring there was a need for sustained attention in the form of longer essays, as well as a need for a brief, momentary recollections or narratives in the form of smaller pieces. Our experiences, and our memories of them, are so varied in shape and texture and temperature, and call for different forms, I think.

Why did you want to imply rather than name your subjects and interests?

Well, I think that comes from Walter Pater who said “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” To my mind, music is an abstraction, and abstraction evokes rather than states, a place where I like my essays, which are generally lyric- rather than narrative-based, to go, and the place where they usually originate. I try in my essays to circumvent designating my subjects; I’d rather the language and the selection of details and the story-telling, if there’s any, to do that.

Phillip Lopate has said that an essay can tell as well as show, and that’s of course true, but I like essays too that evoke rather than declare, though there are plenty of declarative sentences in my essays. That’s one reason why I like segmented essays so much: the white spaces act as a kind of transparent connective tissue. It’s more exciting to be held aloft by wires that you can’t see. And that same strategy went in to arranging the book and the essays within the sections.

I sense a strong link with poetry in your essays, or perhaps it’s that you seem to have a background in poetry as well as in creative nonfiction. Is this impression accurate and, if so, what did studying poetry bring to your prose? What poets were strong influences and why?

Yeah, in graduate school at Ohio University I wrote poems, in fact wrote a poetic thesis and dissertation. Sometime in the mid-1990s I began to grow dissatisfied with writing poems and turned to writing prose. It wasn’t overnight nor was it something I was really conscious of at the time, except that I felt that I wanted to write sentences and not concern myself so much with line breaks. That’s a very simple decision that had a monumental impact on me as a writer. I’d been reading essays but really had to catch up—I still am. I think that because of my love of poetry I gravitated toward writing essays that were lyric in impulse, or in origin. Like most of us I’ve always remembered, and observed the world, in snatches, shards, and brief scenes, narratively-speaking. So my early essays, some of which are in the book, are quite short—not as short as the micro-essays or prose poems; those originated in deliberate attempts at brevity—and in retrospect definitely stem from the lyric moments I’d been working with in my poems. But my poems had begun to feel to me squeezed out, too dry or spindly, and I wanted to push my sentences a bit, to “tell” and chase ideas or analyze more while still allowing imagery and abstraction and music into the writing.

There were poets I loved to read—Stevens, Kinnell, Plath, Lowell and later, Russell Edson, Dennis Schmitz, Mark Irwin, and other contemporaries—but I don’t know that they’ve been direct influences, more like compass pulls toward lyric abstraction as I’m writing sentences and paragraphs.

Your work seems conversant with the entire tradition of the essay, from classical essays—Montaigne’s work comes to mind—to today’s lyric form. What do the essay’s roots have to teach us? Which essayists, whether ancient or modern, have most influenced you?

The roots of the essay have everything to tell us. On some level each essay begins with What do I know? The great turn that an essay can make, has to make in my opinion, is to move from that essential question to Why do I know? That is, why does this linger, why do I now feel compelled to explore it? What don’t I know? Every essayist is fond of highlighting the word essay’s etymological roots in “the attempt, the weighing out,” and that’s always important to remember, for young essayists especially, who need to be urged to go beyond story, to really believe that an essay should start not with What but with Why, an attempt to make sense of something that’s either dimly understood or so well-understood that it might benefit from a skeptical reassessment. My favorite quote about the essay is Huxley’s: “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” An essay can do anything in the world as long as the essayist is writing candidly and honestly.

Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf have had some influence on me, I think, as have contemporaries Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Vivian. As a single influential book, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker In The City is up there, both for its subject and its style. But lots of writers from different places—fiction writers like Andre Dubus, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Larry Brown, rock & roll writers and cultural critics like Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the baseball writer Roger Angell, even Phyllis Richman, the restaurant reviewer at the Washington Post who I read every Sunday when I was growing up!—all these people have also influenced my writing and my approach toward nonfiction, some directly, some indirectly. A model is always good to have for a writer, to see where one overlaps with that model as well as where, and how, one doesn’t.

The self and its experiences are what the essayist has to work with, yet in practice both components face the presumed “so what” test and are tricky to pull off. You quote V.S. Naipaul on this: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” Could you discuss this in terms of your own subjects and your use of persona?

This is the great paradox of personal writing. Why should the reader care? Because the writer cares? That’s not enough. What I love about Naipaul’s quote is his necessity on song, the crafting. The image I always use, that I’ve discussed before, is of a silhouette: by the end of an essay or a book of autobiographical nonfiction the writer should morph into a silhouette, a persona-outline into which the reader steps, and into which the reader fits, perhaps surprisingly. Montaigne said that we have inside ourselves the entire human condition, and I think the smartest essayist both embraces this and is deeply skeptical of it. The work comes less in being attentive to potential subject matter than in shaping that subject in such a way that might resonate with a reader. And the reader works, too. Some essays —I’m thinking right now of work by Nabakov and John D’Agata and Lia Purpura, Richard Rodriguez or David Foster Wallace, or Walter Benjamin—need time and patience on the part of the reader, to let digressions and footnotes and expansion do their work at coherence.

But the art, and hopefully the resonance for the reader, comes in the shaping. The tops of my students’ heads lift off when they get it, finally, that an essay can come from anywhere—it doesn’t have to originate in sexy or dramatic or otherwise trendy subject matter. Their spirits flag a bit when they realize the work involved. They learn, and I’ve learned: “This does not matter simply because it happened to me, or even simply because the experience might be unique.” Paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, the value is in the telling, the exploring, the doubt and uncertainty, the chase toward something tangible—not in the events. My childhood and adolescence were statistically normal, I’m happy to report. The subjects I explore in my book—suburbia, cities, Catholicism, faith, sex, landscape—are hardly novel or sexy or fraught with drama or abuse or adversity through which I’ve been transformed. What an essay says is: Being alive is startling, an astounding subject; that’s everything, let’s go there.

Your thematic mix is interesting in itself, and your exploration of sex and faith, in particular, is unusual. Despite those being such fraught subjects, your stance seems much the same as for your other topics—here’s something that happened and that interests me—and I wonder if you’d discuss your approach? Also, because many of these thirty-eight essays first appeared in journals, I wonder how readers, including editors, have reacted?

The experience of growing up Catholic was a kind of fun-house mirror held up to sexuality. On the one hand, Catholicism is a very sensuous faith in that among its foci is the body: Christ’s body, both divine and human, sacred and wounded, the priest’s body, devout but flawed, my body, all hopped-up and going nuts in puberty. But the church also taught me about self-abuse, about the dangers of indulging, about the sins of the body. So around age 13 or 14 as I was mentally undressing the girls around me during mass or thinking about the underwear ads in the Washington Post Magazine, while struggling to pay attention to the sermon and the sacraments, there was an age-old conflict going on. Urge versus abnegation, urge versus sin, urge versus propriety, the afterlife. It was a heady mix, to say the least. And, as you said, I approach writing about it as I would anything else intense that I experienced: this must be made to matter. But the mingling of sex and faith was—is—such an overwhelmingly present subject for me, that I trusted to its value.

Readers and editors have been fine with these subjects. I don’t think that I’m particularly explicit, and I try and write respectfully, even if what I’m essaying at times are moments of rather brutal objectifying on my part. But living is complicated.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-personal, implication, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

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

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether 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 cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

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.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, journalism, teaching, education

Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, teaching, education

The Beatles were all about this

For Meg

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an A. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.—Art & Fear

I found Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland by way of a British blog, The Beatles Songwriting Academy, devoted to learning to write songs by studying the Liverpool lads. It’s not just a worshipful fan site: blogmaster Matt Blick rebukes them for lame songs (his “Hall of Shame” includes “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and for some stinky rhymes that mar great songs. But Blick has a “Be-atltudes” page, too, in which he enumerates virtues, especially the prolificacy of Paul McCartney and John Lennon:

Between 1962 and 1970 Lennon & McCartney wrote close to 200 songs. Almost all were recorded and released. The majority were top 10 hits as singles or album tracks. Whereas most writers today would throw away a song that wasn’t good enough for their next album or didn’t fit stylistically, the boys always had a reason to finish that song. And because of their insane recording schedule they always had to come up with more songs.

Mates and rivals, who happened also to be gifted, Lennon and McCartney inspired and goaded each other to craft new work. What’s ranked as one of the greatest songs ever written, and their masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” which concludes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, showcases their separate gifts being expressed together under the pressure to come up another tune. They melded utterly separate lyrical fragments each had written.

There are many examples of collage in their work—the result of prolificacy and saving stuff—including the lovely sixteen-minute medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and including “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight” that climaxes their last album recorded, Abbey Road. As McCarthy says on the mini-documentary that came with my iTunes download of the album:

 We had all these bits and things. We hit upon the idea of medleying them all, which gave the second side of Abbey Road like an operatic structure. Which was quite nice because it got rid of all these songs, in a good way.

McCartney, especially, was known for fiddling with random licks for years. And The Beatles’ recording engineers were taught never to spike any session discards, since they might be folded in somewhere later or used as codas. On “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s elegiac opening was inspired by newspaper headlines about the death of a friend; then comes McCartney’s upbeat bridge, a boyish flashback he hadn’t been able to finish; and finally the resonant close, haunted by Lennon’s surrealistic imagery about filling the Albert Hall with holes (its genesis in another newspaper story, about a pothole problem).

• • • 

In the past few years, I’ve returned to The Beatles with such delight. Their music is so joyously playful and creative. But then, I imprinted on them almost fifty years ago, listening to Meet The Beatles, sitting crosslegged on my big sister’s carpeted bedroom floor in our beach town—she had a stereo—and staring at the album cover, such a riveting artifact. Holding it, I saw four composed faces floating free in the blackness—Oh, I see, they wore black turtlenecks. That’s how they did it!—and, embedded in the spinning vinyl on Meg’s turntable, such romance.

What else could an adolescent girl and her nine-year-old kid brother want for in Satellite Beach, Florida, in 1964?

And then, in the summer of 1970, we listened to “Here Comes the Sun” beside our swimming pool on her boyfriend D.K.’s portable record player. Wow, high tech.

Splashing in the blue water a block from the Atlantic Ocean, we had no idea what a long cold lonely winter was. Or where Abbey Road was. Or that the coolest band on the planet had split after cutting this album named for a London Street. Or if, just maybe, Paul was dead—he was barefoot in the crosswalk, a sign of death, so someone said, and his cigarette was pointing down. John was dressed like a priest, or an angel, or something, all in white anyway, and George Harrison brought up the rear looking like a gravedigger in his blue denim.

But we agreed with George, busy celebrating the solar life force—and romantic love, of course, that other life force, the lads’ great theme. There in the sun, in the lee of the big ficus tree—Meg and D.K. in a corner of the pool deck, as far from annoying me as they could get—everything, little darlin’, was alright.

(Happy Birthday, Meg.)

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Filed under essay-collage, essay-lyric, music, MY LIFE, NOTED, working method

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW

‘Reality Hunger’ redux

Wall Street Journal photo

Lincoln Michael at The Rumpus has written one of the most interesting and compelling responses to Reality Hunger, by David Shields, that I’ve come across. And that includes my three blog posts stimulated by the “manifesto.”

Michael writes:

[W]hile Shields praises the same qualities I look for in my art, the book is framed by a somewhat incoherent thesis that fiction is dead, narrative is pointless and the premier literary form of the now is the lyric essay (with memoir, it would seem, being a close second). I cannot be the only one to read a supposedly radical manifesto—the book jacket labels detractors as mere defenders of “the status quo”—and be a little disappointed to learn that the novel is dead (again?) and the literature of our bright, hectic future is the lyric essay and memoir. Even the terms “lyric essay” and “memoir” feel dusty sandwiched between discussions of hip-hop and cell phone stories.

I think he’s right that, essentially, Reality Hunger elevates personal taste to a movement. Something is going on, with communication and culture and all, but something is always going on. Fiction has just as much or more claim on this new reality, it seems to me, as does nonfiction, though creative nonfiction sales and buzz now dominate publishing.

Michael’s complete review is here. Another very interesting essay on Reality Hunger, “Plotting a Revolution: The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps,” by Sam Sacks, appears here on the Wall Street Journal‘s website.

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Filed under essay-lyric, memoir, narrative, NOTED

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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Filed under emotion, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, experimental, honesty, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, subjectivity, theme

Death to dingbats!

Reading an elegant memoir this week, I became annoyed with the dingbats the publisher inserted in the author’s line breaks, the white spaces he used as transitions between sections in chapters. A dingbat, in this case a set of three square blocks, is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations,” says Dictionary.com. That’s the third definition—the first is “an eccentric, silly, or empty-headed person” and the second is “dingus,” a “gadget, device, or object whose name is unknown or forgotten.”

Amen. The dumb things arose in the age of hot lead type, an era of imprecise technology and poor communication, to safeguard authors’ intentional white space from harried printers in the back shop. Now dingbats traduce this important authorial decision. Clearly they’ve outlived whatever usefulness they possessed, something evolution tried, like tailfins on Cadillacs, that was excessive, grew vestigial, and faded. Except of course in newspapers, where dingbats are used to insult normal readers by shouting that a mistake isn’t being made.

In short, dingbats are moronic. And yet some book publishers still reflexively put the damn things in whenever a writer hits an extra return and pauses for breath. Tradition is at work, but mindlessly, which is my real beef. Melville used only four line breaks, by my count, in all of Moby-Dick, and the novel’s printer used five bristling asterisks in each break.

With the poetic influence of lyric essays growing, even many traditional writers are using white space to set up a mere line or two—and dingbats bracketing such liminal space are grotesque. (Somehow poets survive without dingbats after every stanza.) Dingbats deface the text and the writer’s intent to use white space as a resonant pause full of meaning and implied narrative. The white space is counterpoint, the ball hanging in the clear air before the racket’s downward thwock.

I’m supportive of dingbats used to separate sections in block-style paragraph format where most white space is simply a paragraph indicator, as on this blog, and dingbats (or numerals) can telegraph a more significant transition. Like so:

*      *      *      *      *

There, my jihad against dingbats is launched. Admittedly a number of publishers already do without them. But I expect slow dingbat extirpation because design is a realm that authors are ignorant of, or which they cede, and publishers refrain from soliciting design preferences from writers.

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Filed under aesthetics, design, editing, essay-lyric, journalism, structure

Against narrative

In the About section of this blog devoted to narrative, I used to fret that narrative seems to inhibit reflection, or at least is in tension with other ways of exploring meaning: I’d noticed in writing a memoir the pressure of the constant “and then” of the story. But a friend questioned what I meant and I couldn’t defend my tentative insight. So it was exciting to see a writer boldly go there—in fact he mounted a sustained attack on narrative—in an address at last week’s Ohio University Spring Literary Festival sponsored by the English department’s creative writers.

David Shields made clear he was also fretting, and speaking for himself, before confessing to an auditorium of writers that he’s sick of seeing the creaky techniques of narrative coming at him. Deeply read and the author of nine books, an English professor at the University of Washington, Shields gave an erudite talk that made me feel uneducated, timid, and very traditional. His books include an acclaimed novel, Dead Languages, and a bestselling new work of nonfiction, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. He based his talk on his book forthcoming in 2010 from Knopf, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

For Shields, the nontraditional lyric and collage essay forms have David Shieldssupplanted the traditional novel as a means of knowing and investigating the world. “The motor of the novel is story; the motor of the essay is thought,” he said. “I’m not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. Making up a story or characters feels, to me, like driving a car in a clown suit.”

He came to this epiphany in the mid-1990s while working on his fourth novel, which collapsed—he couldn’t commit himself to working out its plot and character—and in its wreckage emerged his first nonfiction book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. Shields wants to eliminate the “delusion and contrivance” of fictional characterization. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” he said. “I and like-minded writers and artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”

Some of his other assertions:

• “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I write stuff one inch from life, but all the art is in that inch. Tell the Truth but tell it slant. Genre is a minimum-security prison. All great works found a genre or dissolve one.”

• “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Nonfiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is ‘Once upon a time.” Essay is ‘I have an idea.’ I don’t seek to narrate time but to investigate existence. Time must die.”

• “Serious plumbing of consciousness, not flashing of narrative legerdemain, helps us understand another human being. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People will say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Greenland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.”

• “The play Hamlet is, more than anything else, the person Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.”

• “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world.”

• “A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. First person is where you can be more interesting; you don’t have to have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom here is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

• “When the mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original, we’ve arrived at collage. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . . The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, ‘reality’-based art—unprocessed, uncut, underproduced—splinters and explodes.”

• “Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. Absence of plot gives the reader the chance to think about something other than turning pages. In collage, we read for penetration of the material rather than elaboration of story. I like work that’s focused page by page, line by line, on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative.”

• “Collage implies brevity. You don’t need a story. The question is how long you don’t need a story. Omission is a form of creation. Cut to the chase. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.  I remember in grad school telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies—such presumption—but now, twenty-five ears later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into something approximating that. I want the overt meditation that yields (at least an attempt at) understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next.”

It seems to me that a writer wants to tell a story and wonders if he can in the form he envisions. Next he doubts his chosen form, its conventions and constraints. Next he examines the cultural grab-bag from which he borrowed. Finally, to greater or lesser degree, he begins to consciously work out his own aesthetic.

Shields is out on the bleeding edge of artistic desire.

The mass of readers will always want narrative, but a growing minority will respond to innovative forms. To me, narrative does seem necessary for greatest emotional resonance. Truly the delivery system is gooey: narrative is as humble as our flesh. But stories affect us because when a writer shows us things happening we decode them in our very bones. Actions speak, in our own interpretations, as in life: the partial answers narratives contain are your own answers, however inarticulate. 

After graciously emailing me a copy of his talk, Shields and I corresponded briefly and I asked him about my narrative-is-necessary theory. He said he’s interested in stories but believes most narrative doesn’t serve a larger theme or contribute to emotional resonance. Ninety-nine percent of narrative, he told me, is “pure machinery.”

Alas, a postscript: It was clear at the conference that Shields’s sally upset some people—a prominent poet pointedly described his work from the podium as narrative—but later I learned how upset a widely published fiction writer was. And a professor who teaches doctoral writing students said they analyzed Shields’s tract and declared that it formed a . . . narrative of his discontent.

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