Tag Archives: David Shields

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

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

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

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

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

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

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

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

He writes:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.0

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

Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.

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

—David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

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

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

David Shields, author provocateur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bissell continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Honesty and chronology, part one

Truth is a disputatious concept in memoir. I’ve said that nonfiction shouldn’t involve invented characters or scenes, unless the author cues the reader to such imaginings, because readers understand the implicit promise in the genre to abjure sleight of hand. But “memory has its own story to tell,” Tobias Wolff argues in introducing This Boy’s Life, meaning that the subjective memories of which memoir is made are the truth. And memories are tumbled in our minds into creative reconstructions to make emotional and symbolic truth of life.

What this means is that, at the least, memories have scant respect for chronology. Chronology may be the most “natural” way to narrate a memoir (or essay), yet anyone trying to do it realizes how difficult it is and how artificial in its own way. In order to furnish narrative drama in a memoir, actual timelines must be chipped free of the sense the mind has made of its own experience. And vexing minor issues arise: if the writer remembers something happened at one point, because in his honest recollection that’s when it occurred, is he bound to adjust when he realizes, during his fifth draft, that it happened a year later? Or does he decide the significance of the mind’s creations on a case-by-case basis?

Some of those who argue for memoir as literature, as an artful construct, think this issue is ridiculous: of course you goBookForum with the inner truth!

I’m torn about this. Rigorous inquiry into events can help both insight and narrative. Yet a writer might become boring or ineffectual—few can write about childhood, for instance, without accepting childhood’s truth, which makes a Jungian hash of chronology. In memoir, is chronology an exception to the public’s putative desire for literal truth, or is it the canary in the coal mine of Truth? This issue is at the heart of a debate among memoirists about whether memoir must be driven by narrative, must “read like a novel” as most readers and publishers wish, or whether it should be more honestly discursive, intellectual, probing.

It’s bracing to realize, as I sweat such stuff, the contempt some fiction writers have for memoir, or at least for memoir’s claim to truth because it’s real or factual. The clinging to exterior rules appears to signify to these critics a lesser art form, however popular it may be. Of course rules don’t hinder art, quite the contrary, but fiction writers and poets are free to choose their own rules on a case-by-case basis. If a poet’s writing a sonnet, there he goes. Once a novelist chooses her point of view, she’s usually committed herself to play the story a certain way. (My view of forms is of course traditional; the avant-garde—more on this, below—hates the tired tools that only underscore craft’s artificiality.)

I thought of this reading an interview in the current BookForum (Summer 2009) with acclaimed Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who said, “Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. . . . To tell a story, you have to—not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.”

He goes deeper into his view of memoir’s aesthetic failure:

“Literature, to my mind, starts from some sort of personal space—and then it has to go beyond that. Whatever experience you may have had, whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that’s meaningful beyond yourself. And because it’s transformed at some point, it stops being about you. The person in my fiction is not my life, so we can talk about it. If it were my life, what would we have to say about it? Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature. Confessional space is solipsistic: I’m the only one here, you don’t get to enter. You can watch from the outside and as a voyeur, and that appalls me.”

Novelist and memoirist David Shields is similarly testy about anything that would “misposition memoir as failed journalism”—though he admires memoir, as he defines it. Amidst a fun diatribe he made against narrative at Ohio University’s literary festival in 2009 (see “Against Narrative” on this blog, May 12, 2009) was his argument for memoir as a form of “poetry”—that is, as a species of imaginative literature:

“When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don’t say accusingly, ‘But did this really happen the way you say it did?’ We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit.  I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal.

“We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir. We persist in seeing the genre as a summing up of life, even though that’s not typically how the genre is used in the great rash of memoirs that have been published in the past twenty years or so. When we house memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we take the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously.  We act astonished, even dismayed when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that memoirists reimagine the past, but we’re constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with the transgressions of a recidivist pedophile. I think we need to see the genre in poetic terms. The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and I think once writers and readers make their peace with this fact, there will be less argument over the ethical question about the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’ . . .

“Memory is a dream-machine, a de facto fiction-making operation. . . . We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir). We have no memories from our childhood, only memories that pertain to our childhood.”

He’s got his answer, a desire for unfettered nonfiction. Hemon has his, a disdain for the banality of memoir’s mundane promises. And I’m struggling, awkwardly in the middle with questions and partial answers. In part two, I’ll try to find a middle way between literal and impressionistic approaches to memoir, focusing more tightly on the narrow issue of honesty and chronology in memoir.

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Filed under aesthetics, creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir

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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