Category Archives: theme

John McPhee discusses chronological structure

Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.

Futuristic Ceiling x

You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker

“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”

And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”

You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”

McPheeArt

McPhee’s drawing of the structure of “Travels in Georgia”

McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”

I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.

McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.

There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.

Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.

In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.

Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, structure, theme

Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy

My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.

Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.

In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.

Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.

The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?

Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me.  But listen to her reading  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.

To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.

Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.

His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.

All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:

Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.

Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.

Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.

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Filed under fiction, NOTED, religion & spirituality, sentimentality, syntax, theme

An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics.

And then there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be.

Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like so. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme about him: Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal.

Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection— which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. But, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t.

Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying, He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife.

At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme. And we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this latest holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

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Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

Review: Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory’

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf, 268 pages.

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

Vladimir Nabokov follows this intriguing precept, which he announces in Speak, Memory, with vigor in the book, fondling the minute sensory and surface details of what he loved as a boy (especially butterflies, on which he became a renowned expert) while skimming over the particulars of major events, such as the exile from Russia of his liberal, reformist family. The memoir embodies the writer’s conviction that “this world is not as bad as it seems.”

Published first as a series of essays over many years in The New Yorker, and compiled as a book in 1947 after “more or less thorough rewriting,” in Nabokov’s phrase, Speak, Memory seems less cohesive than the great novelist’s fiction. (In the middle of it he begins to refer to “you,” and I realized he was addressing his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.)

Nabokov’s fine prose calls attention to the writer and exacerbates—or strengthens, if you please—the author’s choosing, in the memoiristic mix of scene, summary, and reflection, to lean heavily on the latter two and especially on reflection. The memoir’s downplaying of events, and the writer’s cool eye, distanced me emotionally from the story and its characters and, again, swiveled the spotlight back on the writer making baubles at his desk from his childhood memories. The book relies on your knowing about Nabokov. Often I found Speak, Memory tedious, especially the long genealogical histories (odd, given his philosophy), because they are poorly linked to his parents and himself, though surely they’re a gold mine for biographers. Better are his detailed portraits of his many tutors, whether admired or hated.

What I keep thinking about, not exactly fondling, more like worrying over, is Nabokov’s portrait, consisting of about four sentences in the book, of the unfortunate boy who was born less than a year after him. He never mentions his two sisters and youngest brother, but notes that the role of this number two kid, Sergei, was to watch him, the young genius named after his father, be coddled and favored. Nabokov admits to bullying Sergei, and I sensed that Nabokov dominated the entire family—or at least its offspring—as some smart, strong-willed firstborns can. Sergei grew into a hapless, passive young man, in Nabokov’s telling, who lingered too long in Berlin and the Nazis killed him. Nabokov bravely distills his own cruel, childish role in shaping this victim, but he doesn’t pretend to guilt he doesn’t feel. His own childhood was as happy as happy could be. He asks for not a whit of sympathy—quite the contrary—when his idyllic world is shattered, first when his wealthy parents lose everything, then when his beloved father is, by the way, assassinated.

The message in Speak, Memory is in the words themselves, in the nature of memory, and in the meaning given to life by aesthetic passions. The literary world instantly hailed the book as a masterpiece, though Nabokov never forgot his bruising encounter with the New Yorker’s copy desk over the years of its serialization. While grateful for the editors’ “minor improvements” to the grammar of this non-native writer, Nabokov skirmished to preserve his rhythms, allusions, dry jokes, and artifice. In places his writing ability astonished me. One example:

“Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. . . . Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself onto a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start.”

There’s so much going right there. What thrills me isn’t the easy alliteration that Nabokov loved—so do I: how that “lone light dimly diluted the darkness”—or the pleasing rhyme of “visible drizzle,” but his use of “uncouth” to describe the swan, which nails the malevolent stupidity that sets apart swans from their cousins, ducks and geese. Not to mention his noting its “ridiculous efforts,” followed by this perfection: the “slippery sound” of the bird’s wings against the wooden gunwales. That “wide ripple” and “gluey” “dark swell” are pretty darn good, too. He piled on adjectives, but they were the perfect adjectives.

Knopf’s “Everyman’s Library” edition of Speak, Memory is elegant but features a criminally tight, dense design; though I own it, I checked out an older, more readable version from the library. Knopf’s does include a never-before-published final chapter, Nabokov’s pseudo-review of the book. In it he explains his overlooking his siblings as stemming from “the powerful concentration on one’s own personality, the act of an artist’s indefatigable and invincible will.” Interestingly, similar to Updike in his great memoir Self-Consciousness, reviewed previously, Nabokov says he takes nonfiction’s pledge literally and seriously, which perhaps helps explain the book’s sparing dramatization:

“Obviously Nabokov’s method would lose all sense unless the material were as true an account of personal experience as memory could possibly make it. The selective apparatus pertains to art; but the parts selected belong to unadulterated life. Nabokov’s memory, especially in regard to the first twenty years of his life, is almost abnormally strong, and probably he had less difficulty than most memoirists would have had in following the plan he set himself: to stick to the truth through thick and thin and not be tempted to fill gaps with logical verisimilitudes posing as preciously preserved recollections. In one or two cases research may have proved that something was incorrectly remembered . . . ”

Nabokov says the “permanent importance” of Speak, Memory is as a “meeting point of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story” that traces certain “themes” from early life—including jigsaw puzzles, chess, colors, hikes, exile—into new realms and toward creative maturity. In other words, he aimed to write a sensory, artistic memoir, not a gassy autobiography; he succeeded, according to his own ruthless standards. If I found the result less charming than he intended, I admire and take instruction from the depth of this mandarin’s effort to honor and to link elemental experiences. It gives me more respect for my own.

Per his “review”:

“The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought together, are seen to interweave or converge, in a subtle but natural form of contact which is as much a function of art, as it is a discoverable process in the evolution of a personal destiny. Thus, toward the end of the book, the theme of mimicry, of the ‘cryptic disguise’ studied by Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with the ‘riddle’ theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. To the same point of convergence other thematic lines arrive in haste . . .”

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Filed under aesthetics, honesty, memoir, REVIEW, theme

Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.”

“If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination.  You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.”

These quotes are from Dinty W. Moore’s interview with Writer’s Digest about his new book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. As befits the founder of Brevity, the interview is concise. But in it he touches on pretty much everything a writer needs to know. His personal practice is simple but obviously effective in getting the work done: he says he rises about six o’clock, “writes for a few hours,” and goes off to his day job.

AARP on line currently features his distilled tips for people who want to get started writing a memoir. Elsewhere on this blog are other Moore tidbits, including excerpts of a previous interview with him by Mary Richert and my review of his textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, revision, teaching, education, theme, working method

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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Narrative among the dark Danes

K. Brian Soderquist, U.S.A.-born and now a Danish citizen, co-author of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony, teaches my son Tom’s Kierkegaard class this winter in Copenhagen. While on a recent field trip, Brian conveyed to Tom and to his study-abroad classmates an interesting perspective on storytelling that resonates for all nonfiction writers and especially for memoirists:

“I think we should keep in mind that on this trip we’re going to hear a lot of narratives—or stories—that can be different however you tell them. People don’t think about history or themselves in terms of raw facts, they just think of narrative. And we are always negotiating with our previous narratives of ourselves as new events happen to us: I say that as an existentialist, that we are forced into narrative as a method of making sense of an identity that is constantly changing and different from every point of view. The way we present ourselves is never a statement of things as-they-are, but as-you-have-come-to-terms-with-them. Tom here just asked me how I happened to move to Denmark permanently, so I had to summarize fifteen years of my life for a two-minute conversational blurb.”

(This is excerpted from “Brian’s Head, Part One,” an essay on Tom’s blog, Kierkegaard In Me.)

Or as a writer told me, “No one tells everything, Richard!” Chalk another one up for memoir as a species of literature. As if even journalism as allegedly literal as reality TV isn’t edited. Any narrative is partial and cast in a certain light. Truth changes, a fiction.

The intensely passionate truth-searcher Kierkegaard only ever referred to himself as an author, Brian told Tom, occasioning a significant pause of understanding between these two intellectuals at the front of  the bus. I take the meaning: We’ve added the labels: Knight of Faith, Christian philosopher, father of existentialism. Kierkegaard despised labels. But an author he indisputably was: He’d published thirteen books by the time of his death, at age 42, in 1855. His journals, since published and considered his most poetic and beautiful work, run to 7,000 pages.

But in the impatient computer age don’t try this secret for discovering meaning, which he unveiled in Either/Or, Volume I: “Tested Advice for Authors: Set down your reflections carelessly, and let them be printed; in correcting the proof sheets a number of good ideas will gradually suggest themselves.”

(A by-the-by lesson of his life and his existential philosophy for writers: if you want to write and it brings you pleasure, write—it’s the world’s problem if you aren’t any good. Of course, he was published—and also widely regarded as a joke during his lifetime.)

When I was a year older than Tom, I read some Kierkegaard, and what I understood stuck. Amidst

Our Tom, with his buddy Jack

endless paragraphs emerged hard gemstones of truth, everlasting precepts that flashed from his stormy soul: “Truth is subjectivity”; “To defend anything is to discredit it”; “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”; “Desire is a very sophisticated emotion.”

He’s my favorite philosopher because he didn’t believe in philosophy and created stories, told by wild alter-ego narrators. He published most of his books under their names, though everyone knew it was Soren playing around. “Kierkegaard would have us recognize that we are the authors of our worlds and have us assume responsibility for that authorship, recognizing that it derives from values that we have chosen,” explains Donald Palmer in Kierkegaard for Beginners. He tells a wonderful story of young Soren‘s strange upbringing: His father sent him to a Latin school with instructions to bring home the third highest grade. “It’s easy for a genius to get the best grade,” Palmer explains the strategy. “But to get the third best, he must learn psychology. He must figure out who the second and fourth smartest boys are and place his own work between theirs.”

I wasn’t and haven’t been patient enough to stick with Kierkegaard at length, but perhaps I should, considering that my most cherished philosophical zingers came from him. As an adult my profound spiritual touchstones are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both works speak to writing’s, as well as to life’s and each sex’s, larger reality and deeper purpose. While more clear than Kierkegaard, who trafficked in irony, and rich for me conceptually, neither has left me with the wealth of one-liners to compare with those I quoted above. But then, I was twenty-two when I read the Danish bard, and I may be readier now to deal with him with greater conceptual understanding.

John Updike, in his last videotaped interview, with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, said that a diminution of energy had changed his writing over the years. Some wonder was lost. He spoke of a scene in Rabbit Run where the protagonist, abandoning his wife, strokes his hand across the velvety foliage of a privet hedge as he leaves the premises.

“Your ability to care about that kind of detail I think slightly diminishes,” said Updike, who nevertheless carried on. He was, incidentally, a serious student of Kierkegaard.

Forgive. Love. Create. That’s all there is. All there ever was. To go on, in fear and trembling, in the face of eternity. Tom knows this already, at barely twenty-one. And he feeds his soul this winter on the oeuvre of a man who looked at eternity, searching and suffering for transcendence from earthbound blindness.

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