In the aftermath of from November, not only has my pedagogy paper, “Anything but the Truth: Lies in Nonfiction”, been accepted at the 2011 AWP Conference, but I was selected to deliver the Nonfiction Forum’s craft lecture.
I keep wanting to call it a keynote. I’m just going to call it the 2011 AWP Conference Pedagogy Forum in Nonfiction’s Keynote Craft Lecture.
Here’s some of the gist of my paper:
This exercise asks students to focus on form and structure while keeping content off their radars. Specifically, students are told to write an essay in which nothing is true, everything is made up. They cannot, however, produce fiction. This tension helps us talk in class about just what it is that makes an essay an essay. If nonfiction is no longer beholden to “the truth”, what makes it distinct from other genres?
I did this with my graduate students this semester as an in-class exercise, and they all (or, well, those that spoke up) seemed to love it. What I did was give them titles of essays on index cards. I recall “On In-Laws” being one of them. The questions I had are the questions I have about nonfiction that interest me. Who starts with history? Who (like me, all the time) leans on etymology for insight? Who explores through personal narrative and who avoids it?
Of course, writing something in which nothing is true is impossible. A lot of them go to the truth. It’s not a problem; they have to, really. Maybe it doesn’t logically follow (please remark) that because it’s impossible to make everything up, it thus is equally impossible to make nothing up. Maybe this isn’t a sound argument for the allowance of invention in nonfiction.
At any rate, I’ve got a 15-minute paper to write before February.
Creative Nonfiction in its new format now accepts nominations for blog posts to reprint in its quarterly print issues. It’s a bit like the Findings section of Harper’s, I guess. Yes, you can in fact nominate yourself. I thought vainly this would maybe be a good idea, so I went to CNF‘s Web site to see what’s what:
We’re looking for: Vibrant new voices with interesting, true stories to tell. Narrative, narrative, narrative. Posts that can stand alone, 2000 words max, from 2010. Something from your own blog, from a friend’s blog, from a stranger’s blog.
Of more than 130 posts on this blog so far, I don’t think a single one qualifies. It’s never occurred to me to use this blog as a medium for recording narratives. It seems I have no true stories to tell here.
Am I a disappointment? I say aloud often that people have an innate hunger for narrative, and yet what I do here is all analysis and criticism. I have a tiny audience: would you rather get more true stories? Is narrative what people go to blogs for?
Here’s a true story. Since last Wednesday morning I’ve been spending twelve hours a day in ward 2C of the Francis Building at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota—part of the so-famous-I knew-of-it-before-I-ever-knew-how-properly-to-spell-mayonnaise Mayo Clinic. I sit those twelve hours just two steps away from the bed of my boyfriend who’s maybe seventy-percent of the way through a slow recovery from small intestine resection surgery. Wednesday, his surgeon expertly cut out a cancerous tumor the way a poor darner might fix a hole-torn tubesock—slicing laterally twice through the tube and sewing the two new open ends together. Except what the surgical team sliced out of my boyfriend was eighteen inches in length. “You’ve got more than ten feet in there,” Dr. Swain told me afterward. “He won’t miss it at all.”
Hours later they put him in a shared room, despite our requests he be given something private. Already, a large man lay in the bed closest the door, awake and curious, giving me and N and his nurses and his mother the thrice-over. His eyes moved like a scary cardiogram. It was Tyler Perry. The actor-writer-director-producer Tyler Perry was sharing N’s recovery room. I shook his hand and said, “I’ve only seen two of your movies, but I liked them. You have so many others, don’t you?” Continue reading CNF‘s Quarterly Blog Roundup
In a “Talk of the Town” piece from this week’s New Yorker, Richard Rayner writes that beloved historian Stephen Ambrose essentially lied about the access he was given to President Eisenhower:
Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? [Son] John Eisenhower [said] that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.
Ambrose’s lifelong story, Rayner writes, was that his life was changed by the thousands of hours he spent with the president, and it seems that story was a myth. One told by a storyteller. I’m not surprised, nor am I worried about whatever troubles with authenticity I might uncover were I to read his two-volume biography of Eisenhower that Rayner says “is still regarded as the standard.” Here’s Ambrose in his own words, talking to the Times when plagiarism scandals came to light:
“I tell stories,” Mr. Ambrose said. “I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation.”
Maybe it’s just that these days what readers want are dissertations and not stories.
The current issue of Creative Nonfiction (a magazine out of Pittsburgh; I used to walk past its Walnut Street offices in the days I lived with girls in Shadyside) is in a new magazine format—laid out, graphically rich, pull-quote-heavy, 8ish” x 11ish”—that is welcome and good. I think the days of serial publications looking like novels are over, and it’s clear the folks of CNF have realized this, too. One of the issue’s early essays is from the by now former editor of TriQuarterly, on the move of his journal to an all-digital format, run by students. It’s a decision made perhaps stupidly by Northwestern’s administration, and while it’s a loss, clearly the idea with this magazine (inclusive also of an essay by R. Rodriguez on the death of the PBS Newshour’s five-minute essays) is that change is afoot. Although it’s unclear whether “afoot” means happening now to happening soon, and so let’s just say things change. Let’s make it present/infinite tense because this is a statement that’s always true. Continue reading The New Creative Nonfiction
After all, just because the novel is food for worms doesn’t mean that fiction has ceased. Only an artificial dualism would treat every non-novel as if it were reportage or court testimony, and only a fear of the slipperiness of life could perpetuate the cult of the back story.
So which is it, NYTBR? Is nonfiction’s liberation from fact an inevitability from the decline of the novel, or does it damage a writer’s moral authority, as Charles Bock argued in your pages two weeks ago? Maybe it’s a bad idea to demand critical consistency from a reviewing organ, but what’s such an organ’s editor’s job, exactly?
Below is a photograph I took of my friend Steven last night. More insectile than cervine. I’ll need to work on the scale in possible future pics.
John D’Agata writes books in and about nonfiction that get me very interested in and excited for the genre. After the first generation of “New Journalists” who just decided to get out and write great, engaging, personal, subjective nonfiction without dickering over the name of this genre, and then after their 2nd-gen acolytes who made their careers precisely through such careful dickering and promulgation, here’s our 3rd-gen go-to guy, whose nonfiction work seems so smartly disinterested in what (other than its author’s own assertion) makes it nonfiction. And yet his work is so journalistic. By blending and maybe even disregarding genre, D’Agata’s found a way to move the genre forward.
His new book seeks connections between two public events in Nevada: the U.S. Senate’s debate on whether to use Yucca Mountain as the dumping ground for our nation’s nuclear waste, and a 16-year-old’s suicide accomplished by jumping from the observation tower of a Vegas hotel. There is, of course, no connection between these events. The boy’s suicide was not a call against nuclear energy. And yet this is the job of the writer: to look around and make some sense by piecing elements together. Continue reading Some Questions Asked to/about a Book I Need to Read Soon
Let me know anything you may want to know about Chicago O’Hare Airport’s Terminal 2 because after visiting it eight times in under three weeks I think I know a good deal about it. There’s a McDonald’s at the terminal’s groin over there; a Chili’s Too where a bartender named George (pretty sure, who bears a rounder resemblance to Brad Garrett) will encourage you not to wait in line for a single table but rather hop up to the bar—single seats! single seats! c’mon folks!—and eventually he’ll convince you it’s the right place to sit, despite your bags you refuse to check, and then there’s a quite shitty Fox Sports Net restaurant where the employees yell at each other. Which of course is probably a carefully planned part of the experience, given the restaurant’s parent company. The going rate in winter 2010 for a men’s shoeshine is $6. The going rate at the Brookstone for an iPod charger is $38. You can’t buy large Cadbury bars for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day at the Duty Free counter just down from the shoeshine bench unless you’re off to Canada (on Air Canada which departs from gates E1 and E2), but there’s a kind of news & gift kiosk on your way to Terminal 1 (pictured in blue) which sells chocolates to domestic travelers at reasonable rates. Something called Johnny Rockets exists over there. Also: broad, great looking men who wear their khakis well that entreat you into conversation with the enticing offer of a free flight, and but by the time you understand these men are talking to you you’re too many steps along your path to comfortably pause and turn themward, and when you glance back in some kind of apology you realize they want just for you to sign up for a credit card, and not, like, your life story or darkest fears.
Much of my February’s been spent there. I’ve been traveling, meeting people in English departments around the country to mutually assess one another on whether I’d be a good fit among their faculty. It’s looking good that I’ll’ve signed a contract for a job by the end of this week, but in the meantime mum’ll’ve to be the word.
If I get hired I’m going to be hired in nonfiction, hired as a writer and teacher of nonfiction. This makes sense given the pending publication of The Authentic Animal, but is also crazy given the rest of my publishing record. I’ve got an essay in a journal, an excerpt from the book. I’ve got journalism written chiefly in the previous century. I’ll’ve (okay, sorry) graduate students to teach things to, and it’s clear I’ll need to bone up on my reading. Memoir is a genre I know of much like I know of Ayn Rand—i.e., through the harsh or loving words of others.
So I’ll be beginning a program of sorts soon, reading through canonical works of nonfiction, such as they may exist. I’ve got the Modern Library list to start with, but therein lies a list void of Didion and so how much serious attention can really be paid it? In Cold Blood, The Liar’s Club, the works of Gay Talese, the anthologies edited by John D’Agata—all are at the top of the list, some as rereads.
You, reader: any others? What vital nonfiction is out there?