Rediscovering Nonfiction

Rediscovering Nonfiction
Written for my Creative Nonfiction Class – Fall 2011
by Thomas Jay Rush

I was walking north on 22nd Street near the Philadelphia Art Museum a couple of weeks ago. As I strolled, angrily listening to a podcast, I noticed a homeless man sitting on a stoop. Unconsciously, I inched toward the outer edge of the sidewalk.

As I passed he said, “How ‘ya doin?”

I continued walking.

He said, “May I ask you a question?” Polite like that.

This made me angrier than I already was. I went back to my car and drove home.

Twenty minutes earlier, I walked away from the Occupy Wall Street protest at Dilworth Plaza where I had gone to interview people. Not because I was interested in their protest, but because I wanted to practice the art of interviewing. I left without speaking to a single person.

I had only to have asked that strange man, dressed like a Luftwaffe officer, wearing a blond wig and German army fatigues: “May I ask you a question?” What was so difficult about that?

In this paper, I propose to tell the story of what prompted me to go down to City Hall that day. Four weeks earlier, I would not have gone. Four weeks earlier, I would have known the outcome of my excursion before getting on the Expressway. I would have known I would leave without asking a single question. Most likely, I would have written a piece about Occupy Wall Street anyway, but it would have been fiction. My intention on this particular day was write a piece of nonfiction. But I walked away empty handed and upset with myself.

When I was eighteen years old, I read a book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It was required reading for my freshmen class at college; we were to write an essay about the book for our final project.

Prior to reading that book, I had read only five books in my life, all fiction. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a book, when I was twelve, called The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (great book). I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with the passion only a first-year college student can sustain. Re-reading it, outlining it, highlighting it, I practically tore the book limb from limb. I could not put it down. I have been calling it my favorite book for thirty years. Before the start of this semester at Rosemont, it was one of the few nonfiction books I had read.
Around the same time I devoured Dillard’s book, I also started writing short narrative essays and poetry. I tried to emulate Ms. Dillard in my writing. I adored the way she related personal events, so seamlessly integrating them into the larger point she was making about being human. I marveled at how she incorporated things she had read into her work, how she wove essays that contained no unnecessary threads. My efforts to mimic her fell well short.

I was young and stupid back then. Instead of trying to figure out what she was doing, I walked away. I stagnated in my own insular brand of the personal essay and I turned to reading fiction. Until I read John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens a couple of weeks ago, my love for Tinker Creek had all but disappeared. Like Rick Parry [sic], the contender for the Republican nomination, my love for nonfiction briefly blossomed, exploding on the scene to dominate the attention, only to recede as quickly as it appeared.

I read John McPhee’s book, The Pine Barrens, before the start of the semester. The following week I read Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Following that, I read Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. After a steady thirty-year diet of fiction, I filled myself with three nonfiction books in two weeks; and relished every word.

From the first page of McPhee’s book, I noticed something hovering over the writing. Unlike fiction, I noticed a feeling that what I was reading was true. It is a simple thing to say—of course, it was true, it was nonfiction—but this was a new feeling to me.

On page four McPhee says, “In parts of New Jersey there are over forty thousand people per square mile…in the central area of the Pine Barrens there are only fifteen people per square mile.” (McPhee, 4). When I read that I thought, “Wow. An honest-to-goodness fact.”

Up until that time, I was under the misapprehension that dry, dusty facts took away from the enjoyment of a book. The fact is McPhee’s book was anything but boring. In the first three pages, he mentions the geography, history, and even linguistic history of the Pine Barrens. He introduces us to the town of Hog Wallow (what a great name) and one of its residents, Fredrick Chambers Brown, when he writes, “Some [people] describe it [Hog Wallow], without any apparent intention to be clever, as a suburb of Jenkins…One resident of Hog Wallow is Fredrick Chambers Brown. I met him one summer morning when I stopped at his house to ask for water.” (McPhee, 7).

I wrote in the margin beside this passage, “I’m in love with this writer.” The next hundred and fifty pages made me a fan of John McPhee. I appreciated the way, like Dillard, he was able to impart so many facts and yet keep me interested. The natural history, the social history, the flora and fauna, the people were all fascinating. I started thinking I could write a book like this.

The only trouble was, as I was conjuring a book about where I grew up, a place just as interesting as the Pine Barrens, there was a nagging worry, revealed in the quote above, haunting me.

John McPhee stopped at someone’s house and asked for a drink of water.

I tried to ignore this detail, but it kept returning and ruining my daydream. Going back over my notes in the margins, I see numerous references to him meeting new people. At one point I wrote, “He’s interviewing the entire population of New Jersey.”

I am afraid of interviewing people. There. I said it. Better to stay silent and allow people to think your stupid….

I was not ready to deal with my fear. As people do, I chose to ignore it. I finished the book and moved on the next book on my reading list: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I really enjoyed Skloot’s book. The prologue itself engaged me enough to carry me through to the end, if only to find out by whom she was pushed up against a wall. As she writes:

I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decade-long adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of [it]…. I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall…and…eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism (Skloot, 6).

If I had ever thought that nonfiction writing was boring (and I did) this prologue removed that misconception from my mind. The use of the words “adventure” and “cast of characters” are perfect. It sounds like an old Hollywood movie trailer. “The adventure!” (Splashed across the screen in red letters from lower left to upper right.) “A cast of thousands! Don’t miss the latest blockbuster from Cecil B. DeSkloot.”

I loved it.

Like McPhee’s book, when I first started reading this book, I detected that same “pall” hanging over the narrative. I call it a “pall” because it felt like something dragging on the narrative, something holding back the prose. I think this “pall” was my own internal thoughts questioning how the writer could have possibly known what she was reporting. For example, on the first page of the first chapter, Skloot writes, recounting a conversation of Henrietta Lacks, “ ‘I got a knot on my womb,’ she told the receptionist. ‘The doctor need to have a look.’ ” (Skloot, 13). I wondered how Skloot could have possibly known what Lacks said to the receptionist.

I suppose she may have interviewed the receptionist and that this is a direct quote, but in any case my attention was distracted. Even if Skloot had interviewed the receptionist, how could the receptionist have remembered an anonymous visitor from thirty years earlier? There must have been hundreds of people passing by that reception desk every day.

I was in the process, for the first time in my life, really, of learning what nonfiction was. What were the rules of this game? What does it mean to say nonfiction is truth? How true is true?

While I was reading Skloot’s book, I was scouring the Internet for information on creative nonfiction. I bought five books about creative nonfiction (see Works Sited); I found a number of online literary journals devoted almost exclusively to creative nonfiction. (One of them called Creative Nonfiction, of all things.) I read numerous articles by Creative Nonfiction’s editor, Lee Gutkind. (Gutkind 2008). I also read many articles on an online journal called Shadowbox and another called Etude.

For some reason, the quarterly On Craft essay on the Etude website, written by the journal’s founder, Lauren Kessler, captivated me. Four times a year Ms. Kessler writes an essay on the craft of narrative or creative nonfiction. (I find it interesting that people practicing the field don’t agree on what to call this endeavor. Is it called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction? They can’t seem to make up their mind.)

I’m a software developer. I wrote a very simple piece of software that downloaded all thirty-five issues of the On Craft essay and stuffed them into a Word document. I did this so I could read them all together in a bunch, but also because it would allow me to summarize them. I was hoping to create a list of the issues a creative nonfiction writer might encounter while doing his or her work.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last two years studying fiction, so I’m familiar with the ideas of characterization, setting, plot, suspense, pacing, etc. I was interested in making a list of things a creative nonfiction writer would have to know about.

Over the years certain recurring themes emerged from Ms. Kessler’s essays:

  1. Truth is paramount, but craft is equally important. The “nonfiction” and the “creative” parts of the name of the genre carry equal weight.
  2. Because one is writing truth, one will encounter ethical questions that do not exist in fiction. What parts of the story should the writer exclude to protect the privacy of the subject? What parts of the story must the writer include? Will certain facts revealed in the piece hurt someone? To whom does the writer owe his/her allegiance: the subject of the story, the truth, or the reader? These issues can get very murky.
  3. Memory is faulty. Two people may remember the same event in different ways. Who is to say what really happened? How can the writer of the piece possibly choose? Should the writer make the choice or present both versions and allow the reader to choose?
  4. Details are important, particularly when characterizing people. When writing fiction one may invent any detail one needs – for example the name “Snidely Whiplash” for an evil character. When writing nonfiction the writer may not invent. But he may choose details. Tom Wolfe called these “value-revealing” details. Kessler says, “If [a man] is bald because he shaves his head, then his baldness is a value-revealing detail…If he’s bald and he undergoes a $10,000 hair implant operation, this is also a value-revealing detail.” (Etude Magazine, Autumn 2002). Ethical questions appear here as well. Which details should be ignored? Which ones includes? What exactly is “truth” if the writer decides on the details?
  5. Frequently in these essays (they span a period of about ten year) the issue of scandal arises. Every few years a supposed nonfiction book is exposed as fiction. The book by James Fry, called A Million Little Pieces, is a famous example. Marketed as a nonfiction book, when it was learned that large parts of it were untrue, there was a huge kerfuffle. Wikipedia now calls this book a “semi-fictional” memoir (whatever that is). Kessler is frequently concerned about how easy it is to slip back and forth over the line of fiction, and warns practitioners to be careful.
  6. Sourcing—that is keeping track of every particular piece of information—is hugely important. On what date did the writer meet someone? Where did they meet? What page, in what book, does a particular quote come from? These sorts of technical issues are important. Without them the piece loses its authority, and the reader’s trust.
  7. Finally, (and this is an issue I tried to ignore), interviewing skill is a prerequisite for writing nonfiction. Ms. Kessler constantly discusses the art of interviewing. She annoyingly insists on her opinion that the writer must learn to interview. The writer must learn to insinuate herself into the lives of her subjects. Metaphorically I stuck my fingers in my ears.

Near the end of Rebecca Skloot’s book is a page titled “Acknowledgments.” (Skloot, 337). They go on for ten pages. There are hundreds of people on that list. To be completely honest, this list of acknowledgments is the single thing that stands out for me from this book. Just as when I was reading McPhee’s book, my internal voice was saying, “I can write this…” and my internal non-voice (or whatever we call that part of ourselves that knows the truth but refuses to speak) was saying, “…but I’m afraid.”

I said earlier that I was shy. I said I was afraid of interviewing people, but I was choosing to ignore this small “value-revealing” detail. Here it was then—staring me in the face—I was going to have to get over my fear of interview people; I was going to have to involve other people in my projects.

So. What did I do?

I ignored it.

I went on daydreaming about writing the next great creative nonfiction book. Worrying much more, to be honest, about the possibility of making stuff up and being exposed, embarrassing my family and causing a scandal, than learning how to interview. Besides, I told myself, I am an artist, and if I want to invent a new sub-genre of creative nonfiction that excludes interviews then that is what I will do. Who will stop me? I moved on to the next book in the reading list, Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.

I am running out of space, so, without going into detail I will just say I enjoyed Seabiscuit. As Dr. Kaier pointed out in class, Hillenbrand plays no part whatsoever in the story of Seabiscuit, and yet it was a very enjoyable and engaging story.

Similar to Skloot’s book, where the acknowledgments stood out as the most striking aspect, a certain passage stood out for me from this book. On an un-numbered page near the end of the book (Hillenbrand, Reader’s Guide), a writer named William Nack interviews (arrrhgg) Hillenbrand about her writing process. In the interview, Nack reveals that Hillenbrand completed large parts of this book while in bed. Apparently, she suffers from a disease called Chronic Fatigue. If she exerts herself too strenuously she gets dizzy. She worked, with her papers propped up on books, from her bed. She conducted interviews over the phone and used inter-library loans to have materials delivered to her house.

Just like that, all my bull$hit about not interviewing people disappeared. How could I possibly maintain the excuse “I’m too shy” in the face of Hillenbrand in her bed? Her experience expunged that excuse from my life as quickly as Howard Dean’s cackle, the night he won Iowa in 2004, expunged him from the Democratic primary race.

The next morning, I drove to downtown Philadelphia and parked my car near the Franklin Institute. God damn it. I was going to interview people. I strode confidently down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, past the Four Seasons Hotel, past Love Park with that beautiful towering masterpiece of a city hall staring me in the face. I had my iPhone with its voice memo app opened and ready. I would deliver a political bombshell: “Those protestors have no idea what they’re doing.” This would catapult my career as a political reporter. I would expose the dirty underbelly of Occupy Wall Street.

When I got to Dilworth Plaza, I milled around, walking on the outskirts of the encampment. Getting the lay of the land. I stood for a long time looking at a strange man dressed in a Nazi Luftwaffe uniform. He was wearing a cheap looking blond wig that stuck out awkwardly from his SS hat. He wore an olive-drab German army coat and grey flannel pants. He was actually spinning on his heel (of what I later came to understand were his jackboots). Two hated rival amateur reporters stuck iPhones in his face while I stood outside the circle and watched.

“Hey buddy, can I ask you a question?”

That is all I would have had to say. What was so hard about that? Instead, I walked away upset with myself. I walked down Chestnut Street until I reached 22nd, then north on 22nd where I encountered that homeless fellow. I should go back and thank him. He knew. Like McPhee, and Skloot, and Hillenbrand, and especially Dillard. He knew. All you have to do, if you want to get what you want, is ask.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1979.
McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Etude Magazine. On Craft Essays. Edited by Lauren Kessler. (accessed Oct. 2011).
Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Edited by Lee Gutkind. (accessed Oct. 2011).
Shadowbox Magazine. Edited by Fletcher and Rivera. (accessed Oct. 2011).

Gutkind, Lee, ed. The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Vol. 2. 2 vols. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Jones, Judith Kitchen & Mary Paumier, ed. In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Paola, Brenda Miller and Suzanne. Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Stewart, John L., ed. The Essay – A Critical Anthology. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952.

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