Tag Archives: Tim O’Brien

Truth and beauty redux

Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?

A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.

There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.

But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.

• • •

I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:

 Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

 Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

 Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, Persona, Voice, POV, poetry, subjectivity, teaching, education

Reading, memoir & hurt feelings

Geese in Westerville, Ohio, obviously can’t read but are enjoying the wettest spring here in about a million years. Photo by Candyce Canzioneri

The founder of Ploughshares, forty years ago this fall, DeWitt Henry is a novelist and memoirist who teaches at Emerson College in Boston. His books include Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations, a collection of linked essays on his generation and on his quest for psychological and spiritual truth; and a novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, about a working-class Philadelphia woman whose life is upset by the death of her father and by her younger sister’s takeover of the family home, which won the 2000 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

His most recent book is Sweet Dreams: a Family History.

A publisher’s synopsis:

A masterful memoir of a young boy’s passage from childhood to adulthood in a family of privilege torn by dark secrets: alcoholism, mental illness, dysfunction. As a complicated coming of age story, Sweet Dreams charts the journey of DeWitt Henry, well-known author, editor, publisher and educator, in his earliest struggles to find and achieve his own creative destiny. It is what Richard Hoffman calls “…a remarkable feat of memory delivered in extraordinary prose.”

 In a review, boston.com wrote:

While his older siblings escape into unhappy marriages, Henry seeks a refuge in literature. By fourth grade, he’s printing a newspaper (the Swiftset Rotary News) for his classmates. He ships off to Amherst, studies with Eudora Welty, writes a novella, and dreams of being a published author. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, the novelist Richard Yates mentors him. He eventually finishes a doctorate at Harvard and settles in Cambridge where, besides teaching and writing, he helps launch the venerable literary magazine Ploughshares.

Recently he sat down with Rusty Barnes for a wide-ranging interview for Night Train. Some excerpts:

Recognizable “real people” in art tend to assume that the art is about them, when it’s not. Strangers don’t care about them. They aren’t newsworthy entities. Nor is good memoir about the memoirist. The character and life of the memoirist is only an occasion for writing about the reader: the reader’s heart; the reader’s need for clarity and meaning. There is always the risk of failed art, of course, when literalness fails to serve figurativeness.

With my brother the problem wasn’t so much hurting his feelings as it was in challenging his own necessary fiction about our past. He objected to early drafts of my memoir supposedly on the basis of facts. His version was a whitewash, of course, and it was contradicted by the witness of my mother and other siblings as well as by all sorts of documentary evidence. He had his own reasons—or needs—to see our parents’ marriage as “happy” and our upbringing as positive. Yet oddly enough he was proud when “Distant Thunder” (the early childhood section in my memoir) was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize, and apparently handed it around to his colleagues, friends, and patients. . . .

As we worshipped Mom, Dad was the heavy, the family millstone. Chuck was the only one who wanted to see Dad differently, and who later in life, even though he himself was a surgeon, imitated Dad’s materialism. He was also the only one of us to succumb to alcoholism himself. In writing the book, I honestly believed that truth would set us free, all of us, including our children in their lives.

Initially, the richest and most inspiring memoir I knew was Stop Time by Frank Conroy, at least if you don’t count Wordsworth’s The Prelude. As I wrote more, and at different stages in the years of revising, along with Conroy, I loved Maxim Gorki’s autobiographies, especially Chidhood. Once I started teaching memoir writing, in addition to these two, I studied Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (besides her humor and her lyrical prose, I loved her optimism), the Conroy-influenced This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff , and the Wolff-influenced The Liars Club by Mary Karr. I respect but was never smitten by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I liked Russell Baker’s Growing Up and Maureen Howard’s Facts of Life. More recently, I have learned from Jim McPherson’s A Place Not Home, James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Kathyrn Harrison’s The Kiss, Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, and Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows.

I think of literature as a conversation between the dead, the living, and the unborn. I read to join in and talk back. I reread (and teach) favorites in this spirit, from all of Shakespeare (and writing about Shakespeare) to the American Short Story, with a focus on Anderson, Hemingway, Welty, Yates, McPherson, and Munro. Outside the classroom, I reread for different needs: to sharpen my idea of the novel, for instance (Ford’s Sportswriter, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Yates’s Revolutionary Road). In college, I saturated myself in all things D.H. Lawrence, but haven’t felt the urge to revisit Women In Love for years. I do reread Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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Tim O’Brien on ‘mysteries of fact’

“It is my belief that plot revolves around certain mysteries of fact, or what a story represents as fact. What happened? What will happen? Huck and Jim hop on a raft (fact) and embark on a journey (fact) and numerous events occur along the way (facts). On the level of plot, this narrative appeals to our curiosity about what may befall these two human beings as they float down a river in violation of the ordinary social conventions. We are curious about facts still to come. In this sense, plot involves the inherent and riveting mystery of the future. What next? What are the coming facts? By its very nature, the future compels and intrigues us—it holds promise, it holds terror—and plot relies for its power on the essential cloudiness of things to come. We don’t know. We want to know.”

“As with plot, I believe that successful characterization requires an enhancement of mystery: not shrinkage, but expansion. To beguile, to bewitch, to cause lasting wonder—these are the aims of characterization. Think of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness. He has witnessed profound savagery, has immersed himself in it, and as he lies dying, we hear him whisper, ‘The horror, the horror.’  There is no solution here. Rather, the reverse. The heart is dark. We gape into the tangle of this man’s soul, which has the quality of a huge black hole, ever widening, ever mysterious, its gravity sucking us back into the book itself. What intrigues us, ultimately, is not what we know but what we do not know and yearn to discover.”

“The object of storytelling, like the object of magic, is not to explain or resolve, but rather to create and to perform miracles of the imagination. To extend the boundaries of the mysterious. To push into the unknown in pursuit of still other unknowns. To reach into one’s own heart, down into that place where the stories are, bringing up the mystery of oneself.”

From Tim O’Brien’s essay “The Magic Show,” collected in Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.

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Filed under discovery, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing