Somewhere early in the sixth My Struggle, the narrator asks, “How can reality be represented without adding something it doesn’t have? What does it ‘have’ and what does it ‘not have’?” I read it while visiting my friend Adam, and I asked him, “Do you value a story more when you hear that the story is true?”
“Probably less, to be honest,” he said.
I feel that’s true. “True stories” cleave more to history than story, and history was my least favorite subject in school.
Lorrie Moore had things to say in a similar vein, Jesus 8 years ago now. Her argument is that nonfiction’s strengths and power come elsewhere from telling a story, and the novel will always be for readers a better storytelling delivery system than the memoir. Stories require a suspension in some mediated place, and fiction’s invented narrator fosters such a space’s creation better than nonfiction’s author-narrator. Where nonfiction beats the novel is being able to move in and out of storytelling modes to encompass research, history, essay, etc., and so when memoirs don’t do this Moore feels the form isn’t working to its full potential.
I buy the argument for the most part, but I go back to Knausgaard’s question a lot, especially as I embark on a book that will be telling a lot of true stories. I’ve been seeing this process as a reduction or a distillation: whenever I write about a person in my life I’ve taken something from them and left the bulk behind. The bulk is what’s true. The whole of a person.
But it’s worth considering what is added to reality when it’s represented. Mimesis is what we call the representation of reality in art, and all art requires a point of view. What reality does not have is a single perspective, and so presenting reality from one person’s point of view adds that primacy or privilege to reality. One way we talk about this is by saying There’s Two Sides To Every Story, but of course that’s also wrong. Usually there are more sides than we can count.
Being a writer, I know a lot of other writers. And being a nonfiction writer, I read a number of things that are about people I know. I try to tell myself that I’m not getting a story about this person I know, but rather a portrait, a caricature. I’m getting one person’s perspective on the person I know from a different perspective.
Which perspective is right or truer? The one written down for others, or the one I’ve been working on myself?
But all that aside, why do some people prefer True Stories to made-up ones? What pleasures or value does their trueness add to the general pleasures of reading a story? I have no idea, but my best guess goes to another concern of mimesis: verisimilitude. If mimesis is the realm of representation, verisimilitude is its scale. How true does this feel?
I’ve been reading Stanislavsky, and about 80% of his system is about the actor convincing themselves that what is happening on stage is real. Convincing seems the key term. There’s an anxiety about whether a story will feel true, or sound true, or whether the actors or characters will appear convincing.
The work of verisimilitude is the work of the artist, but the task of assessing verisimilitude falls on the audience. A True Story insists on its verisimilitude from the get-go, letting the audience of the hook, or at least one of their hooks. It must be some kind of relief.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
And by “early” I mean on page 178. (This was a book I abandoned, recall.)↵
I. I posted this to Instagram last week, with a caption: “But woke people never dream.” It got minimal likes.
My point is clear, but I’ll also add that studies show[*] sleep deprivation has adverse impacts on memory and cognition. So: bad advice. “STAY WOKE” is bad advice.
There’s also the problem of Wokeness itself. Merriam-Webster tells me its origins came from an Erykah Badu song and then shifted, as language does:
The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.
That’s not the problem, those origins. Those origins are noble and good. The problem is that things with “woke” have continued to shift. Being woke indicates little about the content of the woke person’s thoughts or beliefs. You can now be woke about chemtrails, or the “Jew-run media”, or how men have a harder time of it nowadays than women etc etc.
Being is one thing; it’s the staying that bothers me. The condition of being on all the time, permanently at watch. The image “STAY WOKE” brings to mind is the paranoiac with foil on their head. Or better: all the fearful kids in Nightmare on Elm Street, trying hard to never sleep. I don’t think anybody’s life is improved—I don’t think society is improved—by their living in watchful, waking fear.
So: if I were to make a sign in my window with postits, what would it say?
“DON’T STAY WOKE”?
“LET YOURSELF SLEEP”?
“GET INFORMED BUT DON’T, Y’KNOW, LET IT MAKE YOU CRAZY”?
The problem with nuanced arguments is that their language is always so fucking feeble.
II. I’ve written before about my uneasy relationship with activist language, and maybe I’m picking up that discussion here. But when I thought about how I wanted to write a blog post about this pic and my general argument, I hit a wall, and the paper on that wall read: YOU ARE PATHETIC.
First: I wasn’t calling to any action so much as writing against someone’s call to action. If my argument was for anything, it was for moderation, and when I saw this I felt like any of the centrist Democratic presidential candidates I have zero interest in getting to vote for next year.
Second: When I thought about this as a writer, I saw the connection between the position you take and the power of your words. Any argument I had might be itself be strong, but the language or form of it would be weak. Certainly weaker than “STAY WOKE”. And what effect does weak and feeble language have on its audience?
In other words, I could (once again) have a strong rhetorical position that had no effect on my readers. And if a tree falls in the forest etc etc.
III. There’s another connection here to the Call To Action in an essay, which comes up from time to time in NF workshops, usually when a student writes a non-narrative essay, something with an argument or lamentation. Examples are failing me, but more than once students (or I, most of the time) wonder in discussion what solutions or new ways of being the writer might imagine in the piece. What can we do, we ask, given the case you’re making? What would you like us to think or feel instead?
A common refrain from the student is, “I didn’t want to end with a call to action.” What I’ve always taken this to mean is that the writer wanted mostly to explore what they’ve been observing or thinking. They didn’t want to feel forced into the role of problem-solver.[†]
But now I think something different. The Call To Action does something to language, or asks for a certain kind of language, and this something feels at odds to the nuances of complicated and sustained thinking—an essay being a written record of complicated and sustained thinking.
In other words, just as my feeble “Let’s Be Reasonable About How Woke We Are All The Time” would fall on bored ears, so would a Call To Action in an essay make the lofted cloud of a complex thought process fall like so much fog.
An even longer post for next time: bless the activists their language gifts, like the poets, and the advertising copywriters. I’m not of them, but I’m not against them.
(Well, maybe the copywriters.)
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
“Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon.” Indeed, NIH.↵
I see every situation, and most people, as a problem to solve. A puzzle. Ask my partner about how well this proclivity serves me outside the classroom.↵
I didn’t know he existed (Poirot being just Belgian) until I came across Drewey Wayne Gunn’s The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film in the reference section of the Mechanics’ Institute, where I’m now spending my days writing so’s to steer clear from campus during my sabbatical (or clear enough: I pass campus every day I step outside).
Here’s something worth noting from his opening essay on the GMS, about a specific novel he marks as the first appearance of the character type:
The novel incorporates two important patterns that would become hallmarks of the gay mystery. First, Tony [the sleuth in said novel], in the process of solving the mystery of his ex-lover’s [Julian’s] suicide, begins to understand more the nature of his own sexuality. […] Second, the novel is the prototype of the gay mystery as romance. As Tony uncovers the facts about Julian’s life since the time that they were lovers, he discovers the key to unlocking his own emotions. […] Thus, from the beginning, gay mysteries have willfully violated Chandler’s belief that a “[l]ove interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic … to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” For the gay detective, it’s complementary.
I’ve never taught mystery fiction, knowing nothing of how they’re put together, but I can imagine using that craft text of Chandler’s (“Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”) and in a flash alienating any gay students I’d have and overlooking an entire subgenre of the genre.
And so suddenly this is a post about representation? But also it’s a post about queering forms. So happy I stumbled across this book that showed me yet another way gay artists bestrange and bedevil the forms they work in. For more on this idea, see this great essay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris.
Let’s take a look at Prasanth. He’s a man in India who reviews consumer goods and more on YouTube. He places the item in front of a white posterboard display so that it seems to appear on a cloud, or in some void outside the spacetime continuum. Then he speaks off-camera into a close microphone with a touch of echo in the background, like what we imagine the voice of God sounding like.
Prasanth has a voice like feathers strumming muted guitar strings. His plosive P’s and B’s are wet enough to tingle my scalp without being spitty, and his vowels are carried by this low husky rasping that for me seems requisite (hail Bob Ross, ASMR King). But the real magic of his voice is the thrumming of his half-trilled R’s. It feels exactly like having your hair stroked gently, or your back scratched. I could listen to him for hours.
ASMR is as subjective as comedy, and so I don’t expect you to find Prasanth soothing. But I do expect you to find him interesting. Here is a list of some of the nearly 3000 things Prasanth has reviewed:
Every video is the same. The thing to be reviewed materialized on the already vacant white space. “Let’s take a look at this NAME OF OBJECT,” Prasanth says. Usually when it’s a food item, he’ll show you all the sides of the box, point out its country of origin, list many if not all of the ingredients. He’ll tell you how much he paid for the item in rupees, and then say, “or uh … X dollars or so,” for us Americans. He likes to read aloud some of the package copy, or in the case of his review of the Mag Magazine Board Game, he’ll read a number of the playing cards inside.
He is vocal about his disappointments. The one video I have saved, and the first I discovered, is his compilation of stationery sets. The first one contains a pad of paper that looks like a USD 100 bill, but when he unwraps the thing he sees that only the cover is the 100, the rest of the papers are blank white. Later, a pen that has a plastic flipping hourglass at the top has only enough sand to count about 3 seconds. “That’s a little disappointing,” he says, and points out it would be great if it were more like a minute,
Still he gives it 5 hearts at the end, and he says what he always says: “Quite nice. Check it out.”
Then he reviews a plastic Disney’s Frozen slingshot with a pencil sharpener inside.
Prasanth never uses the term ASMR in his videos, though his bio page admits that his videos are a good cure for insomnia. While there are now links to purchase the items reviewed (there didn’t use to be), the point of the videos seems less a public service and more a kind of David Byrnean art project. Prasanth seems not to have found a consumer good he didn’t find Quite Nice, and as somebody with anxieties about rampant consumerism there’s almost an exposure therapy effect of these videos: I’m made to accept, and in short time to wonder, about all the pointless crap the world creates.
Plus, Prasanth’s enthusiasm for the world’s goods comes with a voice and tone that sounds flatly dead in the YouTubiverse of young pretty folks being all up in the camera and Just So Excited To Show You This Thing Today Guys! He never exhorts. He doesn’t ask us for anything, but only to Check It Out.
A followup post to the one the other day on Imposter Syndrome. Posing and pretending got me thinking about acting, and how I’m bad at acting, and how I’m afraid of it. If you ever want to get me the worst gag gift, sign me up for an improv class and make me enroll.
What’s scary about acting is being wrong or not being believed. It’s attempting the proper accent and sounding instead like I’ve got marbles in my mouth, or saying sad words in so wooden a way the audience laughs. Adorable. Oh, look! He’s trying to be somebody else but he’s really only always himself.
In other words, the scary thing about acting is other people dismissing my hubris or delusion. That too-big-for-his-britches quality. Which brings to mind the closet. In truth, I acted like a straight man for more than half my life, and the latent feeling I had during that performance was always: Am I doing this right? What if they find out?
Every time I got called a faggot, there was a critic panning my performance.
II. Lately, I’ve been thinking about acting not as a thing certain handsome people do on stage, but as a thing we all do when we leave the house. I act the part of a writer most mornings, and then I act the part of an MFA program director (me! they actually gave this job to me!) and then I act the part of a teacher, and then I go home and act the part of a loving partner. We all have roles to play, with different scripts and settings and sometimes even costumes.
But further, I’ve been thinking about acting in opposition to passing, given “active”‘s opposition to “passive”—in voice, in sex, in everywhere.
You can pass as anything. Most people’s experiences with passing is when somebody comes up to you at a store and asks you where the restrooms are, or the kosher salt. “Uh, I don’t work here,” you go. Passing involves appearing to be somebody else when you’re not even trying, when you’re just being yourself. Passing creates an audience outside of any performance.
I love passing. I have thought so much about strategic passing I even wrote about it in an essay for The Normal School (on, tellingly, impersonations). I love passing because I love boundaries and borders. Anytime a line in the sand gets drawn I want to stand right on it. I want to be the one person who gets to cross, because taking sides means giving something up. Some freedom maybe.
Passing, though, is passive. It lies low, on the DL, while other people make assumptions and suppositions. And in queer communities (urban ones, mostly) it’s Not Cool. Passing as straight, or cisgendered, implies that you’re trying to pass, because you’re ashamed of being queer.
I think about my friend Clutch, who once told me about the street harassment they get as a trans person. “It’s always guys,” they said, “and they always think I’m trying to pass, and like, doing a bad job.” Clutch embraces their trans identity. They only date trans people, etc. So it’s shitty, the experience, but also confusing—like somebody coming up to you at a store and criticizing what they think is your work uniform.
III. Another dichotomy at work here: expressing vs. impressing. When people exhort you to express yourself, there’s always this feeling of authenticity and truth. You do you, gurl. Or people who insist they write to “express themselves.” Expressing is active, and acting is expressing, even if what’s expressed is a pose, a lie.
Impressing is passive, in that I can’t act to impress you. You are the audience, the arbiter, of whether to be impressed by me. And when I look at these I see how much I love being impressed by people. When I meet new people, all I want to do is ask them dozens of questions. I like to follow a conversation, at a distance, more than I like to play my part in it.
Where am I going with all this? I’ve got some developing ideas that posing and artifice is, paradoxically, the way toward an authentic life. In three more weeks I’ll begin a 1-year break from having to perform two key roles in my life: program director and professor. I feel I’ve done a poor job keeping up the roles of writer and partner (and friend, and brother, and son) lately. Those guys need more plotlines, more time in front of the camera.
The first thing I wrote for myself, not for class, that wasn’t a diary entry, was a poem I composed using my mother’s typewriter at the age of 11:
In my world everyone is a friend. The most happiest times never end.
I’ll lie there at the break of dawn Watching the fun of a little fawn.
Take me to the world of dreams, Away from all the fights, Away from all the screams.
The second thing I wrote for myself, not for class, was a poem I typed on a computer my dad got us when I was 12 or 13. I don’t recall the linebreaks, so here it is, to the best of my memory, in prose:
Being an adolescent is not as easy as you think. You don’t understand what I’m going through, ’cause all you do is drink. The pain, the problems, the pressure. It’s too much for me to bear. The confusion and the choices. It’s like you just don’t care. It pisses me off the way you think adolescence is such a blast. You just don’t understand it all, so kiss my little ass.
That first poem was written out of wish fulfillment: I wanted the other kids to be nicer to me and for my life to go more easily. The second poem was written differently. One day in my English class, I saw on the wall a poem by Bryan Billington, a boy in the grade above mine who was once on my basketball team and who my sister had a crush on. Bryan Billington’s poem was so mad at a father who was so terrible. I was shocked that people our age could say such things on paper, and by the end of the poem I felt something of the catharsis the speaker went through. I was so impressed by it, and I wanted to make such a poem, too, in the hopes that I might impress somebody, so I imagined what it must be like to grow up, as I did not, with an alcoholic, abusive father, and I tried my best to write what Bryan Billington had already written.
II. The semester just ended a couple weeks ago. In my workshop, I tried to talk about risk and vulnerability in nonfiction, and a number of my students talked openly about Imposter Syndrome: they feel often like they’re posing or pretending as writers. My response was, unhelpfully, Join the club.
I’ve spent 15 years now pretending to be a writer, posing as one, the way I started writing back when I was 13. I’ve worked hard to read very closely what other successful, published writers are doing, what they are making that’s getting attention, and trying to replicate that in something I’ve made in the hopes that I might get similar attention.
Attention is the heart of it. When you’re the youngest kid in a family, attention is gold. You spend hours each day digging around for it, sniffing out where you might find even just a pebble-sized speck of it. And when you do find it, you raise it up in the air and kick your heels together in delight.
In college, I had friends who wrote, who were officially in Creative Writing Classes, and who got to give readings at coffee shops in town. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’d grown up somehow to believe I was special, different, probably better than most kids, and that I deserved a life befitting such a special person. But I couldn’t act. And I couldn’t sing well. Writing seemed my only shot at escaping the fate of never being noticed.
So: I’ve been an imposter for 15 years, working on books and publishing a couple of them, getting up most mornings to write more of a draft, or revise another one—yet what else does a writer do? What else makes a Real Writer than getting up and writing most days? What I was tacitly packing into my “Join the club” response was this feeling: All this time I’ve been doing the work of writing, of being a writer, and at every moment I’ve been waiting for a student, or a critic, or a peer to call me out on it. You’re only pretending to be one of us. You don’t actually have any talent, drive, or vision.
Imposter Syndrome. It was their word for it.
III. Imposter Syndrome is a trap the mind makes. That trap is the basis for David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”, which remains my favorite of his stories, because nobody else has done as good a job rendering the contours of this experience. One way out of the trap is learning that no one—foremost none of those imaginary people waiting to call me out on being a fraud—can pin down with any certainty what authenticity entails.
In other words: We all fake it until we make it.
But here, remembering my earliest writing, I’ve found another way out of the trap. I’ve always thought that I began posing as a writer since the first thing I ever wrote, but that’s not true. It’s only the first thing I ever wrote on a computer. The real first poem, the one I wrote on Mom’s typewriter, came from somewhere different than the big lie about my dad.
“In My World” was unoriginal doggerel that nevertheless put forward a vision I had of making the world a better place. It came out of what I felt, and what I wanted. And now, every time I stand in front of a classroom, and I pull out of my ass something to say that I hope sounds smart enough to ward off the pending mutiny I’m always afraid is afoot, and every time I delete a sentence I’ve written because I imagine some future reader calling me out for ripping off Wallace, or Unferth, or Nelson, or Koestenbaum, I think back of the first time I tried to make a piece of writing, and I remember that if I’m posing, all I’m trying to pose as is that kid, wanting the world to be better and more beautiful.
This bit from Jon Baskin’s NYRB review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk left me looking hard at myself and recognizing finally, in words, something I’d felt creeping up on me but not feeling able to name (emphasis mine):
That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these [i.e. neo-socialist, post-Bernie] movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.
It me, as the kids online say. Being true to thine own self feels less like a virtue in these times of oppression.
Came across this one, from one of Kafka’s letters, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
I love how this starts out as contentious and misanthropic and then swerves to end on something akin to salvation and hope.
I’ve got more to say on Sade’s book, but for a future post. For now this quote’s going on the wall of my office.
I’m reading these days about the history of opera, specifically the fall of the castrati and rise of the soprano, and thus the aria, and I remembered this, which I wrote in 1994:
That’s a scan from our high school’s literary magazine. I’m proud of this thing, and I like—playing it for the first time in 25 years via musical typing on Garageband—that I chose C minor, of all keys. I also find it very funny. The dynamics!
Title is probably an homage to Camper Van Beethoven’s “Ambiguity Song”. Anyway, this is what a high school junior does when he’s afraid of drugs and sex.