Information is the death of story

Boy, it sure looks dreamy over there on the fiction side of the genre line. No need to call back that source to find out the name of his first girlfriend, nope, you can just flip through a book of baby names and run with whatever has a pleasant two-toned ring to it or means “lost hope” in ancient Greek. No worries about how to fold that tidbit about increased border security policy under Clinton into your paragraph about a risky night crossing, no agonizing over how to describe Spanish colonial hierarchies with a strong sense of voice and without breaking the reader’s continuous dream. No waiting for the activist to return your phone call or hemming in of language by someone else’s memory. From where I sit, it’s all just fluid prose of pure imagination unspooling from your fingertips like silk. All voice, all the time.

I’ve always been attracted to controls and limits placed on artistic creation. The Five Obstructions is one of my favorite movies; I can understand creativity born from parameters better than that which surges from the black. Perhaps this is what drew me to nonfiction in the first place: you can’t devise a much better parameter than reality itself. Oh yes, I know, the problem of memory and all that, and what is truth and postmodernism and David Foster Wallace and subjectivity, yep, but still, let’s just agree for the sake of not getting all mired here in meta-detail that nonfiction has that giant control placed on it, the clear border around its maze: it is based in truth. Lately that border has come to be patrolled by nervous, trigger-happy guardians, ready to pick off a David Sedaris for exaggeration here and an Erik Larson for a fabricated detail there. What with John D’Agata going all “art is exempt from factual truth because it aspires to greater truth” and therefore making up statistics and characters to suit his rhythm needs, and Mike Daisey embellishing and inventing details about his time in China, and people cranking out bullshit memoirs left and right, the nonfiction community is justifiably on edge about the definition of truth and its relationship to art. It seems one is either in the I’m-a-capital-A-artist-and-bend-truth-to-my-will or unless-it-is-absolutely-traceable-to-a-concrete-piece-of-fact-or-statement-it’s-not-true! camp. Whether out of loathing for the sheer arrogance of the former or fear of the latter, I tend to be stringent in my definition of truth.

But lately I’ve begun to wriggle a bit from boredom with what feels like an increasingly stark choice: to write exciting, surprising sentences with “voice” or to muffle and restrain voice in service to fact. I chose a creative nonfiction MFA program that focuses fairly heavily on literary journalism, and throughout the course of the program I steadily moved away from more memoirish and essayistic work towards reporting and narrative nonfiction. But I’ve always been a writer who loves the meat of sentences, loves big, juicy, convoluted prose that makes me stop and reread without pulling me out of the story’s trance, prose like Nabokov’s and David Foster Wallace’s. I love the shock of a strange and perfect verb, the click of perfectly juxtaposed adjectives, the way a sentence can end curt and tight or sigh into a long plateau or chug up a hill and then plummet.

But the deeper I get into fact the less playful it seems I can be with language; for one thing, I am limited by the information I have. In describing a desert I did not feel or a sky I did not see I can use only the details I am able to solicit; any further embellishment begins to erode the core truth, and when the core truth is the hard-won product of long interviews and trust and careful relationships I want it to be adamant and indutible. Robust sentences seem like gaudy costume jewelry when used to describe how many security cameras were hidden on the U.S. border in 1995. And then there is the prison of my notebook: the more I’ve crammed into it, the less free I feel to simply sit down and write. It seems impossible now to just let ‘er rip the way I used to; I have to revisit, verify, double-check, chiseling the rough sculpture of the facts as opposed to conjuring from the watercolor pool of memory and imagination. It has begun to seem increasingly like fact circumscribes language.

I have a post-it on my bulletin board of desperate writerly hopes and invectives (a Virgen de Guadaloupe; a photo of me and my dog in a pasture at my parent’s farm; a post-it reading “Inhabit the Book” with three underlines and another reading “No Intrusions, No distractions”) that says, “Information is the death of story.” This is a line from Tobias Wolff. And lately I’ve been feeling like story (which to me is actually part story and part sheer language and voice) is being sucked down the funnel of information.

But I can see that this is most likely a personal failing and not that of the nature of literary journalism; after all, there are plenty of literary journalists – David Foster Wallace and John Jeremiah Sullivan and John McPhee and Ian Frazier, among others – who transform fact with voice, whose prose is as salient as their subjects without overshadowing them. But in comparison to the unmistakeable voices of the initial flourishing of literary journalism – Wolfe, Talese, Didion – much of what is written now seems surprisingly voiceless. Voice is subdued in service to the story, and oftentimes that sublimation is necessary: Mountains Beyond Mountains, one of the nonfiction books I most love and respect and that has inspired me to keep on writing nonfiction, is so powerful precisely because Kidder does not let his voice or prose style hijack the raw power of the story, and because he untangles complex webs of facts so smoothly and seamlessly without fancy prose hijinks.

But I suppose lately as a writer I feel lost, unsure of how to use my voice and if and where it belongs amidst all the fact, and simultaneously feeling like ditching fact for pure voice is a selfish cop-out.

In a short essay for the nonfiction craft book Telling True Stories, Alma Guillermoprieto writes, “When I write, I try not to indulge my weaknesses, but I also try to avoid playing to my strengths. It forces me to stretch and makes the story bigger.”

And so I’ve been trying to negotiate a truce between fact and voice: to avoid playing to my strengths and my most intense writing pleasures–the elemental construction of the perfect sentence–and instead to devote time and care to working with fact, without simply caving in to boring explanations and functional language. It’s hard. It’s frequently not fun, and I find myself worrying because at some point writing was almost always fun. Writing is, in the little neurotic cluster of expectations I carry around with me like all writers do, “supposed to be” fun. But I also realize that I cannot grow as a writer if I’m skipping along feeling warmly self-congratulatory for my pretty language all the time, and that no writer can avoid difficulty or expect to get better by way of self-indulgence.

And yet to some extent, writers must embrace their strengths, and enhance them, the way runners know whether they excel at 5ks or marathons, at the flashy surge of the sprint or the slow steady burn of the long run. How much, I find myself asking lately, do I trust what I love as a writer, flex those strong and familiar and developed muscles, and how much do I train and strengthen weak ones? At what point am I ceasing to stretch the story and instead making it less powerful, more neutral and forgettable? Shouldn’t I, a part of me asks, trust and develop what I’m best at and stop forcing what I’m not?

But another part, the one that recognizes the difference between the hobbyist and the professional writer, responds that the further you get into this enterprise, this “writing life,” the more difficult it gets. The less you can rely on your one talent–plot or voice or an instinct for structure or genius reporting or piercing analytical insight–and the more you need to combine those skills, the more you need to channel your stronger skills towards your weaker ones. The less you can expect any of it to be easy.

Which is why the barbecue over there on the fiction writers’ lawn seems like so much more fun, the cocktails stronger, the meat smokier, the sentences unburdened by fact and the writing untainted by all the layers of knowledge that tell me I should know better and no, I can’t get away with that anymore.

Pardon me; I’m off to start a short story.



  • Lesley says:

    I’ve been a lurker for awhile — have really enjoyed the blog and your writer’s-life posts. Re: nonfiction vs. fiction and the grass being greener, I’ve actually had the opposite thought. My background is in newspaper reporting, and I’ve been nervous about approaching fiction because I’m not sure I can trust myself with a world that isn’t built on fact. Fact is comfortable. It has a built-in structure. As a writer I feel like I can disappear beneath all that, beneath the weight of the details and me knowing how to arrange them. The story is either there or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, you keep on reporting until it makes sense. In fiction it’s all about me and my imagination. I find that a little terrifying.

    Regarding the place of voice, I think it comes naturally once you’ve built up the reporting and you have enough rich details to create the kind of sentences that don’t need any extra flourish, because you’ve reported the hell out of them. (To me, these sentences are all the more interesting because they’re real.) I actually saw Alma Guillermoprieto speak in New York recently, and someone asked her how she approaches research in her work. She said, “My reporting task for myself is to report so much that I get to the point where what I find is completely different than what I thought I was going to find. If I don’t do that, I didn’t do my job.”

    Again, te felicito, and trust yourself that you’re doing kick-ass work. I will keep reading.

    • Lesley – 

      That Alma Guillermoprieto quote is fascinating. The further I get into reporting the harder it seems – maybe part of the draw of fiction is that because I know comparatively little about it and don’t have much experience with it I can still pretend that it somehow might be easy. But I think, really, my issue with fact is related to something you mentioned above about arranging – I feel like heavily fact-based nonfiction is more like sculpture than raw creation. Joan Didion mentioned this in a Paris Review interview. It feels like taking all of these collected bits and organizing them, and so much of what I love about writing is spinning a big elegant sentence from nothing. But yes, it is so rewarding to feel like you’ve earned all of these details and insights and then get to put them together to make something that is literally true and all the more stunning for that.

      I used to think the same way about fiction – I could never imagine writing a novel. Building an entire world of complex interconnected lives out of a million imagined small moments…it was incomprehensible. But it’s actually come to seem less terrifying, maybe because I took a fiction workshop I loved and have dug into fiction craft books in flight from all this ambiguity about nonfiction. Still, I know enough not to delude myself that in the end it’d really be any easier.

      Thanks very much for your insights and for reading!

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