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.