Tag Archives: definition of nonfiction

Reality’s ‘weiners’: Words point beyond words

From a notecard I wrote Weds., 27 Nove. 2013, after shopping at Woodman’s, a big grocery store in Rockford:

I was in the refrigerated food section, in an aisle with cheese to my right and O.J. to my left. I came up behind a cart where a boy was sitting in front and the gate was down and he was swinging his heels and kicking the gate below him. As I passed this cart, I saw a package labeled “weiners” in the cart behind the boy. These may have been in the yellow-red Oscar Meyer package, but what I remember seeing was “weiners.”

I thought how, of all the things I could have noticed — the other shoppers, the boy, the cheese, the O.J., I noticed “weiners” — I saw this, processed this visual as a word, read it, got the meaning, and what I got out of that moment was “weiners.”

I’m posting this because — well, I’m not sure. I’m posting this now maybe because I want a post that has “Weiners” in the title — or maybe I want to post something since I’ve been trying to write this post for over an hour now and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels — I’ve had some ideas but I feel like these wouldn’t do much for anybody but me.

I earlier wanted to claim that this moment described above was valuable because it was real — and because my mind somehow made me aware at the time of that present moment (“moment” implies that boundaries had been drawn around a specific duration or experience, and maybe my mind did that, too, at about the same time as it observed and read “weiners”). I was aware of myself having awareness — I was conscious of my conscious perception of “weiners.”

But now, in describing this experience, I’m relating an abstraction. I’m claiming that I really did have the experience described above, but of course, I could have made it up. It could be fiction. Either way, as fiction or nonfiction, the description above is a product of my mental experience, my inner voice that picks the words.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I tend to value nonfiction more than fiction. Perhaps it’s because I read a lot of fiction as a young person, and I grew up with relatives that were good storytellers, but as I got into my later 20s, I started to question the value of the stories I’d been told. I started to sense that Jack Kerouac’s adventures may not have been as fun to experience as they were to read, and that my family’s stories may have unfairly characterized certain family members.

And from my memory: in the fall of my freshman year of college, I went on an after-dark hike on a trail through the woods, and my friends and I were talking about reading Tolkien, and I remember feeling excited to find other Tolkien fans, and somehow I had a feeling that night of the dark woods being linked with the glory of Bilbo’s adventures, and I remember later that same year that I wanted to write a story that could capture and convey, or recreate, that sense of specialness, an idea mixed with an experience (as if, perhaps, I was interpreting the experience as I was having it). And this is a story I now hold and am using here to explain and/or justify an attitude I’ve taken.

Maybe I don’t like fiction in that I feel nonfiction is fascinating enough — that I don’t need superheroes or fantastic plots in order to find things interesting. Just looking at a real thing — say, my cell phone that is on the desk before me — is pretty interesting. I mean, it is, and it isn’t. It’s not some great action movie, and yet, this is true, whereas everything in a Spiderman movie is not.

Real life is fascinating in its “there-ness” (I’m not sure if this is what Heidegger meant by “Dasein” — probably not — but it comes to mind that I should point it out). And even as I write here and now, I’m using conventions like “I” and “is” and “now” and “there” that are words — quite abstract words — referring to things (and “things” is abstract as hell too) that are obvious in one’s experience but hard to prove or convey. “I” is the word that I use as the source of words that I write — it’s the name for whatever is doing the experiencing that seems private to me (and here we go with the linguistic run-around, how we can define words only in terms of other words, and we can’t break across that idea/reality divide, so that everything that I think about reality is itself an idea, not reality.

“My phone is there in front of me”: “phone” is a label, sure, referring to some physical object; “My” and “me” again refer to this idea of “me-ness” (And Heidegger, in creating or redefining “Dasein,” is just again pointing out the frustrations of using language — defining his way out, which is not a solution.); “in” and “of” show relations; but “is” and “there” both seem to refer to, to make claims  of, reality — but reality (whatever “reality” the idea actually refers to) doesn’t make or need claims. The phone is there — duh. I can see and feel that it’s there without even forming that statement (unless Descartes’s evil genius is deceiving me — but I have no reason to doubt the proper function of my senses. I’ll take what seems real AS real).

And yet, there is some kind of unique value to claims made about real things. For instance, a claim about my phone made now will one day become a historical record, in a way that an old fiction cannot. Historians use, for instance, probate documents to tell us about the lives of past people such as Shakespeare. But then, statements about past people and things are merely ideas and not reality any longer.

So I can’t defend nonfiction texts as necessarily being any more real than a fiction text. We educated Westerners are trained to think of nonfiction texts as having evidentiary, and thus, argumentative, value that fictions don’t have, but then most of what we call education is training students to process abstractions in the same way teachers do.

But perhaps I value nonfiction — or, let’s say, writing about reality, writing about what’s really in front of me, and/or what thoughts really come to mind — as a way of simply coming to pay more open-minded attention to what is before me, near me. The language fails to reach outside of the realm language — language has no purchase on, cannot grip, physical things — but using language is a sign that I’m still alive (as Descartes said, roughly), and somehow consciousness seems the greatest mystery. Being alive is fascinating — and that to try to convey this through language fails utterly, of course, pointing me away from words, back toward living.

And now I realize I’ve written hundreds of words explaining why words fail to describe particular things, and I’ve ended up by detailing a hearty abstraction about why words fail to describe particular things. Distinctions fall apart, too.

I am writing this; I’m alive, and writing what I see and hear and think, these remind me I’m alive — something I don’t really need to be reminded of at all.

POSTSCRIPT, a day later: A couple following-up thoughts.

1. Maybe what seemed so odd about seeing the word “weiners” on the food packaging isn’t just that that particular word (of all the things I could be looking at) stood out to me, but also that once I had seen it, that word fully occupied my mind. I hadn’t been thinking of weiners at all, but once I saw that word, that word was in my mind, and I considered how I could call that noisy boy a weiner. The word occupied — or even, became — my mind, my crystalized thought (see here for another reference to thought crystals).

2. The post above seemed to end with me saying that the priority is to know you’re alive. Today, I’m not sure I’d defend that idea. I might instead say that simply being alive is the priority.

3. On the drive home from work tonight, I thought that the mentions above about “there-ness” could also be explained this way: that sometimes (and not always), I see something is near me, and I’m struck by that thing being there. Not surprised, exactly, but struck — like tonight, a particular leafless tree’s shape drew my attention, and I was struck by that tree being there. It wasn’t a weird or strange tree; it was just that tree. It was there. It seems dumb to use such simple words, but as the post above says, sometimes those are the deepest words, the hardest to understand.

Or last Wednesday, before I went to the grocery described above, I was eating at a fast-food restaurant and facing the low-angled southern light, and I noticed a glint of light, a perfect little speck of sunlight, coming to me from the slug of ketchup in a paper cup. It was striking — not that it was so beautiful (in the usual sense of aesthetic beauty), but that it was there, that I had noticed it, and maybe that the world is so intricate that there can be glints on ketchup.

Another time, I might not have noticed it. I see things all the time and treat them merely instrumentally, particularly when I have a task or goal as an overriding thought. At these times, I may see objects as things to step or drive around, and I may look to use a certain object to achieve an end (for instance, I may grab my keys to unlock a door) — and I may not be actually paying attention to these objects. I probably identify the car, person, or key at some basic level and I respond to each as is proper for me to accomplish my task.

But when my mind is not so task-occupied, or particularly when I am in a place I don’t often find myself, I may pay more attention to things that are (somehow I feel the need to write “are there,” but both “are” and “there” mean “exist”). And when I’m, say, visiting a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time, his person, his presence, may not feel real at first [and “presence” itself is a whole weird thing, since it’s not directly sensible] — this is what people say, too, when something startling, like an accident, happens.  But eventually we accept these new things as real.

This question of whether something is real — whether my mind is really seeing what I think I’m seeing — plays a particular role in my obsessive checking of things: Is my stove off? I can touch the burners, and they feel cool, and I don’t see any flames, and the knobs point to “Off” — yet I tell myself to be careful, to not leave home until I’m sure the stove is off. Or when checking for traffic: if I see a car coming toward my left or right, OK. It’s when I don’t see a car that I feel I have to check multiply and to clear my head, make sure I’m really paying attention, etc.

P.P.S.: After writing the previous paragraphs, I read a link on The Dish tonight about research suggesting that brain stimulation can change a  viewer’s mindset “from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective.”

The Old Man and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: All stories are bullshit

The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”

So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)

So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.

The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.

So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.

But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).

I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.

Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.

And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.

But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.

I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)

Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.

I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded.  I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.

My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).

And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.

POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.

The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.

Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of  Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.

So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

The ‘true story’ paradox: Toward a defensible nonfiction

Many writers tell stories about real people and then claim these stories to be nonfiction, that is, “not false,” but this is a problem, because all stories are false (or are so distant from reality as to be false).

A nonfiction story is a sequence of descriptions (of things, people, etc.). These descriptions are the inferences and interpretations of the colors, sounds, touches, smells, etc., that we take in. As we can’t know the world except through our senses, these interpretations may be flawed, incomplete, or speculative.

As such, anything we say about the real world is at best inadequate and at worst, complete fiction. Any nonfiction story that does not acknowledge this is lying.

The problem lies in conflating the label of “nonfiction” with the idea of truth. Truth — the correspondence of any idea with reality — is not only unknowable; there is no “reality text” or “reality idea” against which to compare a human text or a human idea (that is, all ideas we could have, since we know only our own minds and none other). That which we label physical reality — real, touchable things and sensible energies (light and sound) — are not ideas and do not seem to need our labeling. For me, “real things” are those that I do not wish to strike against my head, as they cause me pain. Ideas may confuse me, but they do not make me bleed.

So a nonfiction text may avoid the true/false dichotomy (itself an idea, of course) altogether if nonfiction is defined narrowly as “the expressions of a particular mind speaking as itself” or perhaps “the expressions of a self” (as Kirsch points out).  The truth test isn’t necessary.

If we stopped wondering whether any claimed-nonfiction story was true or false, we could see it just as an idea, an abstraction, a possibility. We could cease the futile struggle of trying to find reality and we could avoid the delusion of thinking that we had found reality. We could understand that all histories, being stories, are not entitled to a claim to truth. We could see that math and all logic systems are merely ideas, as are all philosophical positions and as are all religious beliefs. We’d be left with our own particular experiences and, perhaps, we’d feel a freedom to interpret these experiences anew for ourselves rather than applying others’ concepts to them, but when we did want to borrow others’ ideas, we’d be aware of our borrowing.

Perhaps realizing that our ideas are not reality would allow us to more clearly see our experiences without filtering these through our own, or others’, previous concepts.


This short piece was written after the much longer text below. If the tone above seems oracular, that may be a reaction to my feeling in the earlier piece that I was getting too particular, too bogged down, too chatty. The above is the gist of what I was intending to say below, and what I said below came to mind as I wrote in my journal this morning. I sensed that those ideas could be worth posting on ye olde blogge here. I’m posting the lower piece as perhaps a model in the exercise of writing, and perhaps as an antidote to the lordly-and-or-priestly-simplisitc tone above.


This essay’s point about how humorists like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley aren’t really writing essays but something else:

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.

This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name. This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.

Sedaris’s essays that I’ve read or heard (as he performed his writings on public radio before he began publishing) are well-crafted, entertaining pieces. By now, I expect that when I’m about to encounter a new Sedaris text, I can relax and prepare to laugh (not that I always laugh — some writings are just a bit peculiar, but I have confidence in a Sedaris piece that I do not in a David Rakoff piece or a Sloane Crosley piece. Somehow those other writers don’t quite feel as entertaining. There’s a fine line Sedaris walks between seeming endearing and empathetic — being Everyman while also displaying his peculiarities ( I recall a “Fresh Air” show a few years back where Sedaris told Terry Gross how he finds bugs to feed the spiders living in his house, and I wondered if Sedaris was putting on a persona in order to make himself seem intriguing (which wouldn’t be intriguing) or if he really were that weird (which would be intriguing, but he was telling this as an anecdote on national media, and I doubt he’d be as successful as he is if he were that socially self-unaware), and somehow Rakoff didn’t strike me as being quite as amusing, and Crosley seemed to not be aware that her story-character, her persona, was not always one I could identify with — particularly in the story in “Cake” where she seemed condescendingly critical of a friend’s wedding, and I sorta cringed to read the story, wondering what this real-life friend would think.

And it matters what one writes about other real people. My brother’s book contained an anecdote about me that was not only “frank and humorous” (as the review at the link says) but also, well, false. The anecdote is that, while camping with my brothers and my uncle, I took our flimsy folding saw into my tent at night so as to defend myself from a bear attack. Amusing, sure, but I have no recollection of that (and nor did my brother, it turned out; he got the story from my uncle). If I took the saw to bed, which I may have, it would have been for the purpose of keeping it dry and/or in a known location. I had no delusions of fighting off bears, but it’s amusing to think that a person would. Clearly, I have a smaller complaint than do many other real people (here’s just one) who’ve been the subjects of works claimed to be nonfiction, but it wasn’t fun to see myself portrayed as a doofus in the seemingly long-lasting medium of print. And because my brother claimed to be writing based on his memories, I felt there was no good way to challenge the story, especially since I hadn’t even remembered this event — and I wouldn’t remember it if it seemed like a non-event to me at the time.  (And of course, in my defense, and for my own publishing purpose, I’m guilty here of writing about my brother.)

To write nonfiction stories, anecdotes, or memoirs is to fictionalize. Stories do not exist objectively in the world and so they must be created by a person’s mind, and even if that mind is not intending to lie, that mind can only tell what sense data it took in (which must be incomplete — our brains are constantly choosing which “inputs” to attend to and which to discard) and that mind can only tell what it interpreted that sense-data to mean. A story can only come from a perspective, but every perspective is limited to the point of being untrustworthy. Where one person sees a threatening man, someone standing to that person’s side might see only a villain on a movie poster, and unless these discrepancies are ironed out while there’s recourse to rechecking the evidence, both interpretations exist and both may be no more true than “that’s what I remember,” which is both inadequate and unassailable.

Sedaris’s stories are unassailable. He tells stories about himself and other real people (he’s pretty hard on his father, for instance, in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which  Wikipedia article contains a reference to these troubles, how Sedaris called off a movie of the stories “after a conversation with his sister aroused concerns as to how his family might be portrayed on screen”) while these other people aren’t around to defend themselves. But the stories are entertaining. Sedaris’s essays are well-crafted so as to be entertaining, so as to make them easily digestible for the audience.

An article by Nathan Heller in the 25 Feb. New Yorker (mostly behind paywall) contains this distinction:

“Artists are pulled these days between two warring camps. On one side lie what might be called the Experientialists: those who believe that the point of art is to have the audience undergo a particular experience in time — and that the audience’s responsibility is to submit as fully as possible. (Think of Antonioni, who kept his cameras open to the unexpected.) On the other are the Arrangers: people who think that the role of art is to order, burnish, perform, and engage desire. (Think of Hitchcock.) Experientialism honors the artist’s sensibility: ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ may be dilated and slow, but it’s only by giving in to the author’s method that we can experience its genius. Arranging, by contrast, defers to the audience: what makes ‘The Great Gatsby’ better than any of a hundred novels with comparable cultural freight is that it’s economically written and smartly plotted, seducing us without special conditions. Diehard Experientialists accuse Arrangers of pandering with ‘easy art’ and cliche. Arrangers mock Experientialists for self-indulgence, tedious abtruseness, and bad faith. (The lousy Experientialist claims that his disjointed, boring novel is supposed to be that way.) The ablest artists are those who inhabit a middle landscape, mastering the art of special attention while meeting the challenges of effortless appeal.”

Clearly, if one’s goal is to make money by appealing to a wide audience, one would make one’s art as effortless as possible, and one would stick to familiar forms. But these familiar forms can sometimes become part of the fabrication that an artist wants to expose.

Sedaris’s stories do not include caveats or doubts that would at least bring in the possibility of an unknowable reality — Sedaris relates reality in his stories. Well, not quite: there is a sense, as Kirsch writes, in Sedaris’s work of an irony that calls “the whole story into question.” But in a sense, this is OK because, I suggest, Sedaris’s essays are never essays (particularly if essays are defined as “attempts” (per the French etymology) in which doubt plays a primary role) — instead, they are scripts for his performances. As a performer, Sedaris is directly in front of an audience, which can boo or leave and so must be entertained. He is able to charge significant prices ($40 to $65 for a ticket in Salina, Kansas) for his public performances — these are not just readings. In giving a performance, there’s not a lot of room to invite philosophical debate — people wanna laugh, and if Sedaris were improvising onstage, or merely telling off-the-cuff anecdotes, people may not be amused. It’s better to go with your best — prepared — stuff in that case.

In contrast, David Foster Wallace’s reportorial essays are not pared down for performance but are stuffed with self-conscious attempts to explain and overexplain — thus, the footnotes. Wallace seems aware, obsessively so, of the problem of writing nonfiction about reality. Yet, he still (as here) does characterize — turn real people into descriptions that might as well be fictional for all the reality about a person that they could possibly capture.

His digressions, while they may reveal the associative nature of his thinking, may also give a sense that he is actually trying to paint a picture of reality through sheer thoroughness.

What I want to suggest is a method of nonfiction that does not attempt to tell stories. (Even when newspapers tell stories, they try to avoid the problem of perspective by simply retelling, by quoting, the stories of those who were there — thus, news gets abstract — and unassailable — by not even trying to discover reality but by mainly retelling others’ stories. Reporters defend themselves by saying “I can only report what sources tell me,” which info could be fact-checked against other sources, but that’s just a matter of comparing stories to stories. I suppose it would be possible to report what one actually sees, but then one is limited by one’s own perspective and interpretation.

[And at this point, I was going to write the ideas that went into the shorter piece at the top.]