Tag Archives: nonfiction

‘That’s a damn story’: Considering To Kill a Mockingbird after visiting Monroeville

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I read To Kill a Mockingbird just before visiting author Harper Lee’s hometown Monroeville, Alabama, recently, and I’m left with some questions about the nature of fiction, nonfiction, and real places, and how these intersect. Seeing the town and thinking about Nelle Harper Lee’s life story got me confused; I’ve yet to make sense of these things for myself. Since I don’t yet have an overall theory, I’m going to list some things I learned and what these things imply.

In the beginning of the novel, Maycomb, Alabama, lawyer Atticus Finch is the widowed, 50-something father of 6-year-old Scout Finch and her 10-year-old brother Jem Finch. Scout and Jem befriend a boy, Dill Harris, who spends summers in Maycomb living with his aunt Rachel Haverford “next door.” Neighbors “three doors to the south” are the Radley family, and “the Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch,” and “the Maycomb school grounds adjoined the back of the Radley lot.” Arthur “Boo” Radley was kept “out of sight” from his teen years on after a run-in with the law.

Nonfictionally, Monroeville, Alabama, lawyer Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee was 52 when Nelle Harper Lee was 6. Her brother Edwin would’ve been 11 then. Nelle befriended neighbor boy Truman Capote, who lived with his Faulk aunts in the house directly north of the Lee house. Neighbors two doors to the south were the Boulware family, whose property extended into a south-easterly curve, whose house faced north, and whose back lot adjoined the elementary school yard. Alfred “Son” Boulware, Jr.’s “father promised to keep him under his thumb in lieu of punishment for an adolescent theft.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book. Also in the case are pennies, a gold watch and chain, gum wrappers, marbles, and carved soap figures.

An intriguing example of the mix of fiction, nonfiction, and real physical objects is the display in the courthouse museum pictured above. There’s a photo of the real oak tree that was supposedly the inspiration for the oak tree in the novel, and there’s a chunk of wood from that tree. The other objects represent the gifts that Jem and Scout found in the tree, an incident that may have had a nonfictional precedent, but there’s no claim that these other objects were the actual gifts. There’s a card reading “The Famous Tree,” naming a real tree made nonfictionally famous by a fictional text. About this display, visitor David G. Allan wrote, “It’s this kind of conflation of history and fiction that happily muddles your head in Monroeville.”

Of course, after the similarities, there are also many distinctions between the fictional characters and the real people, and because of the earlier similarities, these differences become that much more stark. We readers might wonder why certain things were changed when so many things were not. For instance, Nelle Harper Lee’s mother was alive until Nelle was 25 — “Frances Finch Lee, also known as Miss Fanny, was overweight and emotionally fragile,” according to Nelle’s New York Times obituary. Nelle had two older sisters; Scout does not. Dill lived with one aunt; Truman Capote lived with at least three aunts and an uncle.

 I’m very tempted to use the phrase “real life” to describe Nelle’s life. But of course, any description of her life is still just a story. Her life story isn’t real in the way the streets and buildings and trees that I saw a few days ago were real. Her life story and the town’s history are simply nonfiction, as are the old photos of Nelle and of Monroeville in the museum and in books such as this. The house where she grew up does not exist and can be found only in story; the Lee house was torn down in 1952 and replaced with a food stand, now Mel’s Dairy Dream (see photos here).

What seemed the most real when I was at Monroeville were the physical objects before me, but it was actually hard to keep my attention on those things because I kept thinking of them through conceptual overlays (like a heads-up display, projecting information onto what I was seeing) of both the novel and of the history. The fiction and the nonfiction were both ideas, abstractions, but I kept applying them to the physical items I saw. I snapped pictures of anything associated with Scout or with Nelle; for instance, I took this photo of the pavement around Mel’s Dairy Dream while thinking “maybe Nelle Harper Lee once stepped here.”

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house.

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house and the current Mel’s Dairy Dream store.

I realized then I’d been thinking that the possibility of Nelle having stepped in a place made that place special. I was regarding her as more than just a regular person (whose footfalls aren’t special). I realized this thought was an example of magic thinking, that somehow I must have started to believe, by being in this town where Nelle lived and about which she wrote, that I could somehow enter the story itself and live within the funny, charming sensibility of the narrator’s depiction of Jem and Scout. This sounds absurd, of course, and it is, but I suspect this thinking might be similar to that of people who visit a site of a miracle or an important historical event. Why go to a place like Monroeville, Lourdes, or the Gettysburg battlefield unless I’m expecting, somehow, to get closer to, become part of, and be personally transformed by, the reality of these places I’d previously only read about?

I can read and analyze a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird without being anywhere near the town that inspired the novel’s setting. To visit the town does give me a chance to see for myself what buildings described in the story look like and how places relate to each other (for instance, now that I’ve walked from the elementary school to where the Lee house was, I think the length of Jem and Scout’s walk at the end of the book was exaggerated. But perhaps Nelle Harper Lee knew that the walk didn’t actually take long, and she made it seem longer to increase suspense in the story). Of course, even as Lee was writing in the 1950s, the town of her youth in the 1930s had changed. It’s also foolish to compare fictional descriptions to what I saw in the real town because, well, the fiction writer is free to change whatever she pleases, and also, to say a real place is “the basis for” or “the inspiration for” or “the setting for” a fictional place is basically meaningless. The fictional town and the real town are not be the same; it’s only in our abstract thinking that we conjoin the two.

Nelle Harper Lee wrote the book because, she told an interviewer back in 1964, in one of the last interviews she granted,

“This is small-town middle-class Southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to ‘Tobacco Road,’ as opposed to plantation life,” she told her interviewer, referring to the Erskine Caldwell novel, and adding that she was fascinated by the “rich social pattern” in such places. “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing,” she continued. “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”

Mockingbird does present an image of her childhood’s cultural and material conditions and does effectively convey this to her readers. In doing this, she created characters based closely enough on real people so that the real people can be identified: noble Atticus as A.C. Lee, reclusive Boo Radley as Alfred Boulware. A.C. Lee is said to have been appreciative enough to sign copies of Mockingbird as “Atticus,” but Alfred Boulware’s relatives (he died before the book was published) have not been pleased by their association with the book, as I was told by Monroe County Museum staffer Rabun Williams.

Nelle benefited from writing about real people, but since she became famous, she seemed to discourage others from writing about her:

She returned to her solitary life in Monroeville, keeping the press and the public at bay. In writing “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” (2006), Charles J. Shields maintained that he had conducted 600 interviews with friends, acquaintances and former classmates of his subject, but Ms. Lee eluded him, turning down his requests for an interview “with vigor,” he said. (Times obit)

After turning other people into the abstractions of fictional characters, Lee perhaps did not want to be turned into the abstraction of Author Harper Lee. She wanted to control her own life story, though through her novel, she had taken control of others’ stories. According to the Times obit, “Ms. Lee lived a quiet but relatively normal life in Monroeville, where friends and neighbors closed ranks around her to fend off unwelcome attention by tourists and reporters,” which protection was perhaps more than Lee granted to the people she wrote about.

By writing about her home town, Lee has also reshaped it. Entering Monroeville from the south on Rt. 21, I saw a sign that said “Literary Capital of Alabama.” While the town is home to only about 7,000 residents, nearly 30,000 visit every year. The old courthouse has become a museum dedicated to Lee and Capote, and local actors put on play of Mockingbird each year, on the courthouse lawn and in the old courthouse itself. The book and museum prompt goofball tourists like myself to wander around taking pictures. Museum staffers and other locals also become willing storytellers as they share their own stories of Monroeville and the Lee family. The town has many empty storefronts, and poverty seems a problem in Monroe County, but no doubt the area would suffer more without its literary fame.

The book’s title comes from father Atticus’s warning to children Scout and Jem not to shoot mockingbirds with their air rifles for “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” and it’s a sin because, as another character explains, “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” Mockingbirds are a symbol of beauty, of selflessness, etc. On the other hand, a mockingbird “often imitates other birds,” and so could also be a symbol for taking the expression of others and making it one’s own.

Update, 22 July: This essay makes a point about the mockingbird as a symbol of the South, and that it wouldn’t necessarily deserve the praise it gets in the novel.

Some additional links about Nelle Harper Lee:

† Google Books link to I am Scout biography of NHL by Charles Shields.

† NY Times review of Go Set a Watchman

“A Queer Look at Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman'”

† “The Decline of Harper Lee” at Vulture.com

Daily Mail article on Harper Lee from 2010

“In Search of Harper Lee” (dated 2010, seemingly written in 1997)

† Sister Louise Lee Connor obituary

Alice Lee practices law at age 100

†  The Guardian: Should Marja Mills’ memoir have been published?

† Go Set a Watchman in the papers of Harper Lee’s literary agents

†  Rabun Williams’s speech at Harper Lee vigil

Some comments regarding Boulware

19 Things about Harper Lee

10 Facts about Harper Lee from AL.com

† Southern Literary Trail: Monroeville

Two nonfiction pieces Lee wrote

† An early (1960) review of Mockingbird includes this section:

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. … It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. … A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.

Nonfiction: My Dad’s Advice

The following is something I wrote to submit to a fiction contest, and it wasn’t chosen, but actually this text is nonfiction. (The fiction part was that I was lying about it being fiction.) I don’t often like to formalize my memories and experiences such as I did below — something about the artifice of memoirs bugs me — and I prefer to write in my journal about things that have happened recently. But writing this piece below was valuable, as I think I learned something about myself as I wrote it.

My dad sat on his truck’s tailgate, and I sat next to him in our farm yard on a summer afternoon. I was about to start my senior year of college, and he’d just been fired from his sales job (fired for reasons relating to his depression, I later found out). I told him that I was intimidated by the thought of soon having to start a career and go to a job every day for the next 40 years. I asked him how he had kept going to work. He said he just did it, one day after another, to support his family. I had been hoping for a deeper answer.

I never really knew my dad. I knew him for 25 years before he was killed as a passenger in a car wreck, but I failed to get a real feeling for who he was.

I could recite the facts: when he graduated college, how he met my mom, and what jobs he worked before and after their divorce. I could name some of his habits: falling asleep in front of the TV on winter nights, taking our big, wooly dog Fritz on rides around our farm, chuckling at the lambs of his flock as they pranced and skittered. I could even tell about experiences we had together, like the time I asked him whether he had smoked cigarettes just to raise his blood pressure high enough to avoid being drafted for Vietnam. (His answer, as I recall, was, well, he really didn’t want to go.)

But somehow I never got a sense that I really knew him. And now I question whether what I wanted from him is even possible. For what does it really mean to know a person? It has been so easy to close to my mom and my friends and my wife, that maybe I just get a sense that they are familiar and present to me, and I don’t try too hard to describe what knowing them means.

But I don’t think I ever felt that same nearness, even when sitting right next to my dad. We started hugging each other on visits after he moved out of our family house — we’d never really done that before. I know the feeling of having my arms around his chest, and thinking that somehow we were kin, were using, living in, very similar bodies. Yet, I imagined him as hollow somehow — that something that was there in other people wasn’t there in him. Of course, there’s no thing to label as what a person is, in any of us — but others are more natural at seeming like there is?

When I was 25 and about to get married, I again asked for advice, this time about relationships. I had surprised him by stopping by his house on a Saturday morning. I don’t remember him giving me any guidance at all. He probably didn’t intend to push me toward finding my own answers, but perhaps my questioning, my questing, was his legacy to me.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’

Reading this excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book “Between the World and Me” recently, I felt my mind changed by a text in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. I highly recommend reading this; this author’s ideas and voice are far better experienced directly than they would be summarized inadequately here by me. Some of my favorite parts, in which Coates is writing to his son, are copied below:

When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term people to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. As for now, it must be said that the elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tastings and ice-cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land.

… The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. And should one live in such a body? What should be our aim beyond meager survival of constant, generational, ongoing battery and assault? I have asked this question all my life. I have sought the answer through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and myths.

Here are some others’ responses to this book. Here’s another.

Living outside of stories, or When does Lennie poop?

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value there.

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value.

Where do literary characters go when they’re not on the page?

When I watch outtakes from a movie, I can see the actors stop being the characters and return to being actors. Of course, they never stopped being the actors; the characters they play are just ideas.

And so are the characters in a fiction or nonfiction narrative. They’re just ideas, which is to say, they aren’t physically real at all. You can’t touch Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” you can’t touch Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and neither you nor I can touch the person who, according to my journal today, got a cavity filled yesterday. Yesterday-me is not who I am now.

When we tell stories, we turn real (nonfiction) or imagined (fiction) experiences into ideas. What one sees as a real person with particular traits (this height, that eye color, a certain laugh, a tone of voice) becomes just “Jim” or “a tall man with blue-green eyes,” etc. We give up particulars, abstracting the experience so we can communicate it. And while we can give in-depth descriptions of particular things, we are at best only specifying an idea, not really conveying the experience itself. To tell a reasonably compact story, we limit our descriptions to just what we think are the most-important things (and, I suggest, choosing what was most-important may not be a conscious, intentional process).

As we tell our own stories and take in others’, we get more efficient at turning experience into stories, so that not only does the process start to seem automatic but we may even start making our stories interesting in themselves, as entertaining abstractions. For instance, if we decide to tell an experience as a comic narrative, we may choose funny words, reveal things in order to create tension or suspense, and even exaggerate certain aspects of the story, all in service of making the story itself into a work of art. Two people who witness the same event may turn it into very different stories.

The broader concept here is that when we turn our experiences into stories (and even as we store our experiences as remembered narratives), we are no longer dealing with physical reality but with ideas. Particularly when we read or listen to others’ stories, we are getting not the experiences that they had but their  interpretations of those experiences into abstractions. This can lead us astray if we take the stories as somehow more real than reality. It has taken me years to learn this.

One issue with making stories is editing — what to leave in and what to crop out. A story is usually organized around around a central theme — say, all the times I went to the E.R. — or around a plot that shows how characters’ actions result in a logical or likely consequence — for instance, in “Of Mice and Men,” how George and Lennie’s choices result in two deaths. The storyteller must include the parts needed to tell a satisfying narrative, and exclude parts would be off-topic or digressive. When information is organized thematically, around a topic or plot, it is not necessarily complete chronologically (or in other ways). (On the other hand, texts that are organized chronologically, like my daily journals, describe all the things in the order they happened (more or less), but these things may not have any connection to each other and may be thematically ordered into several different themes or plots.)

We live chronologically, where a bunch of unrelated stuff happens in one day, but we mostly tell stories thematically, skipping around in time.

When we read a story such as “Of Mice and Men,” which tells about decisions and deaths across three days in the lives of characters George and Lennie in less than 120 pages, chronological time will be skipped. We don’t know what the characters are doing in each moment of the day — for instance, we never see Lennie poop. Not that we need to see Lennie poop — that’s not the organizing theme of the story! But the story we’re told includes only those aspects that lead up to, that contribute to, the murders at the end of the book. It’s a story about murders; it’s a story where the plot is central (more than, say, the characters).

But, back to the original question in this post, where are George and Lennie when they’re not on the page? Perhaps they are occupying entirely different novels, essays, or poems — George’s travel memoir, “Me and Lennie,” Lennie’s Montaigne-style ponderings, “Why I Like to Touch Soft Things,” or Curley’s poem, “Ode to Things I Hate about Guys Bigger Than Me.” And if these characters were real people, they would surely have done things like wiping the sweat off their brows as they did fieldwork, and maybe stopping to appreciate the summer flowers.

In other words, the characters, if they lived like real people, would not have known that they were in a plot at all. They saw things, met people, had various and disparate experiences, and only at what constitutes the end of the story did George decide that he had to kill Lennie. Up until what occupies the last minutes (in story-time) of the book, none of the characters in the book would have had any idea of what the plot was — in our own lives, we can see things like plot (causal relationships) only in retrospect. There’s no such thing as foreshadowing until after the fact (as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20). And in fact, there are no such organizing principles as theme or plot in our lives as we live them. This is to say, theme and plot are aspects only of stories, and not of real life. Of course, if we are interviewed and asked something like, “What was the most important moment in your life,” we may be able to come up with an answer, but of course, this would be an arbitrary choice and an abstraction. One person could write about her own life experiences in many different ways, say, as comedy, as tragedy, etc. — and there’s no one correct story of her life. Perhaps all meaning that is derived from our experiences is exactly that — derived, a result of our interpretation — and there’s no meaning that’s inherent in our experiences.

In a story like “Of Mice and Men,” we see characters on what will probably (hopefully, for their sake) be the worst day of their lives. I feel bad for them — I wouldn’t want to be judged by how I acted on the worst day of my life. I wonder what these characters would’ve been like in other contexts — say, if they were paid for their labor and took the afternoon off to go on a picnic, say. (Or these other possibilities.)

At least, on a picnic, they would’ve been eating not abstractions but particular foods — not “an apple,” but this apple, with its particular shape and spots and taste. I too like to return to particulars, to draw my attention away from the abstractions of words and ideas and toward the particulars around me: this bite of sandwich, this smooth pen, this slanted sidewalk — and all the other things that seem physically real and thus don’t need my (and our) names for them. When my attention is directed toward real, particular, physical things, I am able to live outside of labels and principles and stories myself. I can be undefined, as can everything around me. It’s not a feeling that lasts long, but it’s kinda wonderful to not have to live as if I were a character myself, trapped in some plot, some theme, my life always having to mean something — how tedious that would be!

M*A*S*H time: Chronological or concurrent?

While writing this post, I commented about the run of the TV show M*A*S*H, which, according to Wikipedia and IMDB, included 256 episodes over 11 seasons.

Of course, the Korean War itself lasted just a few weeks more than 3 years, or about 160 weeks. The fact that the show lasted longer, in real time, than the war in which it was set, is self-evident and not in itself all that interesting. What does interest me though is how time within the show, fictional-time, might possibly be mapped to real time.

So, 256 episodes for 160 weeks would be a simple average of 1.6 episodes per week; 7 days divided by 1.6 episodes is roughly 4.4 days per episode, meaning that most episodes would take a setting-duration of 4.4 days.

There’s a way to figure out approximately how many days each episode requires:  watch all 256 episodes and map out how many days are depicted in each show. I’m not interested in doing this data-collection myself, but it might look like this:

In the fourth season episode “Dear Mildred,” Col. Potter writes his wife a letter. Judging by how the scenes flow together, whether time-jumps are indicated by dialogue, action, or day/night lighting, most of the episode occurs during what seems like one day. Potter starts writing his letter and is interrupted, and the camera follows Radar to Hawkeye and B.J. as they meet a helicopter pilot who mentions a wounded horse. A later scene has Potter writing in the mess tent, and he explains that he left his office to go get a cup of coffee. While he’s there, he has a flashback of Father Mulcahy singing, at some earlier movie evening. Later, Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar capture the horse, which seems to be the same day they learned of its existence (since the horse is still alive and near where the pilot indicated). The next scene shows Potter writing in bed, having returned from Rosie’s bar, and when he looks out the window, there is a light (hite, like moonlight or an artificial lamp) that seems to indicate the night of the first day. There’s a cut to Burns and Houlihan hiring a sculptor to make a bust of Potter, and then a cut to the two doctors and Radar removing shrapnel from the horse. When they go outside to avoid the horse’s kicks, it’s night-dark over their heads. I surmise that all this happened within one fictional-day.

The following day begins with a daylight scene with Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar talking about what to do with the horse. More difficult to ascertain in time is the next scene, a cut to Burns and Houlihan where Burns says the sculptor promised to deliver the bust that morning, and it’s night moments later when the sculptor arrives. I’m guessing here that this scene takes place at least a couple days after the sculpture was commissioned, to allow for sculpting time. That same night, Potter is presented the bust and he is also presented Radar’s horse, and the last scene of the episode shows the Colonel riding the horse during daylight, so at the earliest, the following day.

So, the time-within-the-story for this episode depends on how long the sculptor took to make the bust, which in theory could be as little as two or three days (he was, after all, paid $7.50, above his initial asking price). If so, then the episode could fit within the episode average 4.4 days.

However, some M*A*S*H episodes take much less than this average amount of fictional-time. A famous episode is set in real-time, with a clock in the frame indicating the time that has passed since a soldier’s circulation was cut off. Other episodes, including  “Your Hit Parade” (season six, episode 18), “Hawkeye” (season four, episode 18), and “The Army-Navy Game” (season one, episode 20), take place within hours.

The season two episode “Radar’s Report” takes place very specifically during “17 October — 22 October inclusive 1951,” Radar says in voice-over as he fills in the report that structures the sub-stories of the episode. At the end of the episode, as Col. Henry Blake signs the weekly report, he says, “Well, every week can’t be exciting,” which seems to suggest that the episode contains the only notable events of the week.

But at least one episode, “A War for All Seasons,” showed scenes from the camp across the whole year of fictional-1951. If this episode contained all the interesting story moments from that year, it would leave only about 2 years in which the other 255 episodes take place. But it can’t be the case — using the story’s logic — that nothing else of note happened in 1951, because the episode “Radar’s Report” also is set in 1951. So these two episodes are set, as it were, concurrently, suggesting that M*A*S*H episodes are organized thematically, with particular stories followed across days, as in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” days in which other episodes’ stories are also occurring, but off-screen. “Radar’s Report” wouldn’t likely have taken place during the same time as “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (because of the all-inclusive nature of the report), but maybe an episode like “The Incubator” was put together from events that were happening on the same fictional days as in “Sometimes ..” The editing of one scene to another allows gaps (what was edited out) into which the events of concurrent episodes could be seen as having happened.

It’s kinda fun to think about which episodes may be concurrent — and if someone wanted to take the time to do this, perhaps it could be figured out which episodes take place on the same days, and this could add information to help explain, say, why a character does things in one episode that may seem puzzling — maybe that character’s behavior is influenced by something that happened earlier that same day in the character’s life but which appears in a different episode. (Of course, to be satisfying, each episode should contain all of its own causes and effects — unless we take the whole series as an interlocking story.)

Clearly, this entire post is looking at the fictional world of the art work (the series as a whole) from within the story (and setting) logic of the work itself. It may be that the story’s whole fictional timeline, were it mapped out as each episode having happened on separate days from every other episode, or whether episodes happened concurrently, doesn’t perfectly fit an actual calendar, and if so, that does not diminish the series itself. We don’t need to demand that every narrative artwork be completely realistic and fill in its “plot holes.” For instance, this page points out a few time issues the series has, such as how the war lasted only during three Christmases, but the show depicts four (unless, again, these could be seen to be overlapping, with four episodes containing stories that happened only during three holiday days).

But what interests me about thinking of M*A*S*H episodes as having taken place concurrently is that it provides a metaphor for understanding how we organize our own life stories. When I write every day in my journal, I write chronologically (as in “Radar’s Report”), including everything I did the day before, even if those events were unrelated to each other. But when I write thematically about my life, say, when I write about teaching a particular unit in my classes, I’m talking about experiences and ideas that occurred to me at moments across several days. Chronological and thematic organizations could be seen as two different dimensions along which experiences could be graphed/grouped. I’m wondering what other dimensions of experience there could be — and what these different groupings would show us about our own lives.

Of course, there’s the larger issue of how we decide what makes up one unitary experience, where to begin and end those experiences, those stories, out of the continuity of one’s life’s duration, and what do we decide to edit out of our life stories, and why. The choices we make about which memories to include or exclude are probably not based in logic either but in something more personal, less conscious, even (see here and here). We probably shouldn’t be too hard then on fictional works with “plot holes” when we may have our own “plot holes” in our own life stories!

 

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

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.

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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.

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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.]