Tag Archives: truth in nonfiction

Oh, you beautiful mess

IMG_0256To have written, to have made order from chaos: to have written about messy life stuff that defaced three pages of legal pad, scratched, abbreviated, rounding corners, lines written above below obscuring other lines, arrows pointing everywhere but straight forward. To have made some sense of that snarl, of that juice. To have expressed my self.

To say: today I am a writer.

Into her drawers and shadows (Joan Didion’s Blue Nights)

Haunted Didion

As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story.  As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them.  As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense.  The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity.  Because of her sentences.  And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions.  As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.”  The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost.  As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.

(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with.  The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.”  I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)

In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.

Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.

There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.

Joan Didion and her bits

Joan Didion and Quintana Roo

“Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs.  The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.  And so we do.  But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’  We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 136.

I just began reading Blue Nights.  The passage above from Didion’s much older essay has been with me as I approach a still-too-tender writing project.  It’s stuff I will write about some day, though more time must first elapse.  I need perspective, and this is too messy and raw.  Meanwhile I put bits into a jar (or notebook) to save, to turn over, to approach for the quilt when it’s time.

Meanwhile, merely typing Didion’s words (and reading her new memoir) is a comfort and a privilege.

Finding rabbits

Two Steiff woolen rabbits with photo of John Ott

As you five swell followers might know, I’ve been writing an essay about my childhood home that was burned down in a planned fire exercise when I was sixteen.  A rabbit figures in the story.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

After their pyrotechnic work was done, house gone, I returned to the remnants, stood on the ashes.  Near where the shed had been, I found one of my small wool Steiff rabbits, intact, unscathed.  A tiny symbol of the phantom limb of home–does keeping hold of stuff I had before the house disappeared stand in for a home?  When I hold that rabbit in my hand, I feel something stable and secure, but that’s too simple.

Then later in the essay:

Now I hold the Steiff rabbit that didn’t burn.  I imagine again walking across the charred land, finding the thing, the size of a cotton ball, where our garage had been.  How hadn’t I packed it?  How hadn’t it been torched?  I want to touch, smell, hear, see, consume the moment of finding that rabbit.

So telling truth, I pin that rabbit to a velvet board, and into a new ghost story I shove the cute animal, twist rabbits against type, make them sinister, keep writing.  Everything must be lit, and burn, then melt, transmogrify: everything must milk and then feed that famished ghost, memory.

At a fabulous Yellow Springs yard sale this morning, I found two Steiff rabbits, and bought the pair for a mere $7.  It was like my recurring dreams of finding pieces of my childhood Steiff collection at antique stores and having to buy them back, but in reverse: this morning they were not my rabbits, and I was awake.  Now they are on (the one clean corner of) my desk.

Just more evidence that things keep turning and turning, but won’t let us forget: carbon replaces itself, surprises us, and continues to haunt…

Bygone eras…

Hoffman, Bernstein, Woodward, and Redford

…in American cinema, journalism, politics…

I just watched “All The President’s Men.” Chilling.  And inspiring, to see Redford and Hoffman before they were bloated with (possibly still righteous) self importance.  And they sure don’t make movies like they did in the 1970s.  I think that was the best era of American film.  Ben Bradlee says it best (from the film):

“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”

You Are My Sunshine (Who is my sunshine?)

“Sing the deer dear song,” my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter said, early this morning.

She has a cold, and wanted me to sing, “You Are My Sunshine” but with the phrase “dear deer” standing in for “Sunshine.”  (More on our familiar variant, “dear deer,” in a moment.)  No doubt she was seeking comfort in the song I used to sing to her when she was smaller.

The writing of the song “You are my sunshine” is (questionably?) attributed to Oliver Hood.  But according to family legend, my grandmother’s uncle (does that make him my great-great uncle?) Herman C. Becker actually wrote the song.

Great-great uncle Herman was a composer, creating, allegedly, the words and music for “You Are My Sunshine.”  My great-aunt Evelyn recalled making fun of him as he played the song on the piano, because it was so silly.  Herman sent the manuscript  to a music publisher in Chicago (or possibly New York) and never heard anything back.

Until, hearing the song on the radio, my ancestors learned of the supposed rip-off.

Decades later, I sing the song to my child as she’s going to sleep.  My daughter substitutes beloved friends’ names in place of “Sunshine,” or, created in a sillier moment of wordplay, one which Herman C. Becker might have appreciated, referring to the dead deer carcass on the hiking trail across the street (last autumn’s flattening lump of roadkill that we referred to as “deer body” in a first attempt to explain death to the child) she begs me to sing our private lyrics:

“You are my deer dear, my only deer dear, you make me happy, when skies are grey, you’ll never know deer dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my deer dear away.”

I don’t know if she would spell it “deer dear,” reverse it to “dear deer,” or, in simple repetition, choose “deer deer.”

How many generations have been lulled by this song?  And wooed?  To whom does belong?  Is there a point after which the notion of ownership fades?

No one can deny it’s our song.

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

The three layers

I am new to writing nonfiction. In working on my birth essay, I have really struggled about what should stay in, and what should not. As I mentioned here, it’s one of the hardest things I have ever written, maybe the hardest. I think I understand part of the reason why.

There seem to be at least three layers to the story:

1) The first layer is what happened. The truth. Or maybe The Truth. The Facts. The situation. The lived-experience.
2) The second layer is “Our story.” Like the details about the interpersonal relationships that were created and sustained on that day, during that prolonged moment.
3) The third, final, and possibly publishable layer: What I choose to construct so that it fits in the (hopeful) market and will be interesting to readers.

Readers might not care about the little inside jokes between my husband, my doula and me. They don’t necessarily care what the sky looked like as we drove to the hospital, and so many other textures and details that just don’t fit in the 2500 word limit.

It’s disorienting and difficult to construct something tidy from the messy, complicated, ineffable nine months, and then 36 bolded hours of my life.

The hardest things to write about

As a writer, the story of my baby’s birth is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. The fact of the birth is alive; any any words I can arrange to convey what happened, inside my heart, soul, body, inside the room where Merida was born, inside my family, are limbless, lifeless. What I write should be as perfect and amazing as what happened. (Impossible.) What I write will never match the experience. The space between facts and feelings and any paltry words I can summon to convey them is too huge, so as someone who is a dedicated recorder of things into words, I am in worse shape than a non-writer. The words to tell my story become too precious, have too much weight, so it’s difficult to write them. They come out too detached, like clinical records, too tame and devoid of color: how can any sentence convey, capture, hold my experience? Many writers face this with life events and experiences. But every sentence I write tastes like weak tea. It only makes you have to pee. No flavor, no lift. This feels impossible to write.

Horace Mann, education reformer and founder of Antioch College, admonished the graduates in 1859, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” This banner sometimes feels like an unattainable burden, and becomes a curse. As a 41-year-old first time mother, within the current medical climate, being able to have my breech birth naturally felt like a victory of which Mann might be proud. And yet, women’s bodies are made to birth babies, even breech babies. So the paradox: my story should not be so unusual.

And I keep working on the draft of the story of her birth…

Write what you know…but not everything you know…

There was a lot of discussion at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about the chestnut, “write what you know.” Zakes Mda gave a lovely keynote speech, and talked about the idea of writing what you don’t know, or maybe more accurately, writing what you want to know.

I think that the idea of writing what you know is too often taken too literally. People write fiction which is autobiography, veiled by the sheerest curtain: so that setting, plot, characters, dialogue, and just about everything else is (to borrow a phrase from the ubiquitous Law and Order TV shows) “ripped from the headlines” of their lives. When I talk to other writers about this, the more savvy people agree that yes, it behooves a writer to write from a basis of emotional or psychological truth. The idea of authenticity is everywhere these days, and the word is overused, but it fits here, I think. However, having some core of authenticity does not necessarily mean transposing your real life to fiction. No matter how interesting the “headlines” of someone’s life might be, the world and the world of words would be better if people would use more imagination.

So I’ve been thinking about various angles on this problem, both in fiction and nonfiction.

I attended a memoir workshop last week at the AWW. I submitted a piece of nonfiction, more of a personal essay than memoir. In the piece, there is a person whose name I did not use; let’s call this person the villain of my story. Part of the reason I chose not to use the villain’s name had to do with protecting myself. But the story I told is mine, and the reason I decided to tell it has mainly to do with not hiding secrets.

As I understand it, here are my options:

1. Put the essay or whatever it is aside, congratulate myself for the courage and catharsis of writing it, and get back to work on my novel.
2. Change names and call it nonfiction.
3. Change names and call it fiction. (This has zero appeal. See above about not hiding secrets.)
4. Name the person and open myself to unknown and unpleasant reactions.

I get mad thinking about how, in order to tell my story, to be free enough to write it and safe enough to publish it, I have to not tell it all. Or more accurately, I get mad that I can’t name a real villain.

So whose story is this? If I experienced it, do I own it? Is it mine? If it’s mine, why can’t I tell everything? Who do these facts belong to, if not me?

Who owns the truth?