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.↵
Some months back I read this bit in a New Yorker profile of Wolfgang Tillmans:
Tillmans seeks out the experience of displacement. In 1990, he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design, on the southern coast of England. He described the pedagogic style there as “psychoanalytic.” His tutor Tony Maestri was less interested in looking at the students’ work than in forcing them to ask themselves why they wanted to take pictures. “To express myself” was not an acceptable answer.
Maestri “was really asking, Why on earth do you think the world needs more pictures?,” Tillmans said. “Don’t say, ‘What is successful and I want to be like that,’ because it’s very unlikely that you can get to that point from behind. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is not there? How do I not feel represented in what is being exhibited?’ ”
I wanted to get my students to ask themselves a similar question, or I think more specifically I wanted to get them believing in the truth of that answer. How do I not feel represented in what is being written? Had I been encouraged to ask myself that question in grad school, rather than taking published books as models of not just how to write but what to write about, I’d’ve maybe saved some time.
As a teacher, I’ve learned not to ask students a question I already have the answer to. Which in my lead-up to the class where we’d have this discussion I saw myself preparing to do. Why do you want to write? NO. WRONG. IT’S TO TELL THE STORIES ONLY YOU CAN TELL. NEXT! Instead, I asked students to think about how they’d finish the following sentences:
I want to write a book that _____
I don’t want to write a book that _____
The idea was to think about their future books as art objects, or maybe as chemical reactions on the brains of their readers. I wasn’t looking for the content of these books (I want to write a book that tells the story of etc.) but rather the image they had for their books. Or, contrariwise, an image or form of a book they were working against.
It was a new exercise. I put them in the vulnerable position of sitting in chairs in an oval, like in an AA meeting, rather than having tables like forts to sit behind. I imagined they’d ask me to answer, and so I prepared answers.
I want to write a book that is serious about sex without being humorless or taking itself too seriously.
I don’t want to write a book that tells to others a story I’ve been telling myself.
This last was news to me when I came up with it. I hadn’t had that thought before, but it rang like an alarm. Or maybe the bell on a church. A clarity of purpose. Why I’d dismissed memoir—at least as a form I could write in—for so long was that I saw it as this: retelling a story from one’s past. This despite all I’d been teaching about memoir’s purpose.
My workshop syllabus this term as two epigraphs:
We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.
The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion … in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood.
Homi K. Babha
Both these writers are talking about how much of the art of writing is found in the transformation—of the subject, the material, the self—that occurs during the process of writing and revising. Every book that comes out exactly the way it seemed going into writing it is a failed book, evidence of a process deflated, like a souffle that never rises.
Vivian Gornick talks about this as testimony. If you simply tell everyone what happened to you, that’s testimony. Memoir asks for a certain ongoing analysis, or rethinking about what happened. Thinking “against the grain of inheritance and illusion,” as Babha says, until you find the new language you need.
Continuing to mull over my “I don’t want to write a book that” sentence, I’ve come up with a new, or at least newly worded, idea of the work I’m trying to do these days. I don’t want to write, “This happened,” but rather, “That this happened tells me something the writing of this book is meant to simultaneously discover and disclose.”
There’s nothing wrong with testimony. If your story has never been heard before, or is apt to be disbelieved, testimony is powerful. It’s news. But these days I’m not writing the news. It’s like a recent joke I tweeted about wanting to petition AWP to change the name of our genre to nonjournalism. But that’s a post for a different time.
Today, I’ve got an essay up at Lithub about the choices I made to become queer, an essayist, and an artist. Its title was taken from a panel at last year’s NonfictioNow Conference, which got me thinking about how these three words were related in my own life. Thanks to editors Tim Denevi and Emily Firetog for shepherding it out into the world.
A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.
It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.
The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….
Much less had the guts to tell others.
I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:
I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.
I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.