tell it slant

Wolfy posted a comment asking how a person goes about writing a memoir, if the process is similar to the writing of fiction. The question can really be extended to any kind of creative nonfiction, a term you may not be familiar with. I’ll cut to the chase: if you write about something real (WWI, dog breeding, airline safety, Winston Churchhill) that has no personal connection for you, that’s plain old nonfiction. It can certainly be creative nonfiction, which means that the author has taken pains with content and style so that the reader is drawn in. A newspaper article may read

A two story flat burned down last night after an electrical short ignited a stack of papers in the cellar. There were minor injuries to three persons, including one firefighter, who were treated at County Hospital and released. The owner of the building could not be reached for comment.

Or, somebody may decide that the story is bigger and give it full investigative journalism treatment, in which case it will become creative nonfiction. If the journalist knows what s/he’s doing.

A sixth grade book report is nonfiction about fiction. So is a review in the New York Times.

I read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a genre I really love, for the care and thought that goes into sharing esoteric knowledge or stories that otherwise go unremarked.

[asa book]0375760393[/asa] A title that jumps to mind is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire — which is where I got the idea for the Wilde’s apple orchards). Here’s the PW review:

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan’s fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Memoir is a very different undertaking. You are contemplating your own being and history. You feel your way along as you write. There’s very little invention here — unless you happen to be the putz who wrote the fake memoir that Oprah bought into — but a great deal of room for style and presentation. The process is so very different from fiction writing that it’s hard to even compare the two, at least for me.

And now I contradict myself: there is, of course, no such thing as a factual memoir. Everything is reshaped by memory. Goethe called his autobiography Wahrheit und Dichtung (truth and imagination, for a loose but colloquial translation) . Because the two are indistinguishable from each other. [asa book]1206577296[/asa]

My friend Suz wrote a memoir called Body Toxic, a truly masterful piece of work that is a hybrid — memoir, yes, but also a look at environmental mayhem in her native New Jersey from various angles. The research is there, and so are the personal memories and the re-imaginings. Terrifically difficult to pull off, but she did. Body Toxic evokes tremendous reactions from people who read it, especially people from New Jersey. Such emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. The anger some readers pointed at her as the author makes it clear that her memoir tapped into a greater consciousness and a great deal of conflict and pain.

If you’re writing a history of gardening in Japan, you may love your subject but still approach it with some degree of objectivity. It’s next to impossible to be truly objective about your own history.

Writing about my own history is something I’ve been trying to do for all my adult life. If I’m writing fiction I may ask myself: what does this character want right now, and why? But when I think about writing memoir the questions are more complex and far harder.

What was she thinking? What did she want that she never got, and why?

[asa book]0072512784[/asa] Tell it Slant is (a) from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and (b) the title of a book also written by Suz and Brenda Miller, a colleague. ((Suzanne writes her creative nonfiction under a penname, you may have noticed.)) The book was designed for students of creative nonfiction, and attempts to demonstrate the idea of Dickinson’s poem: you can’t run at the truth head-on. If you approach it at the right angle, your story will not only be told, but heard.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–

2 Replies to “tell it slant”

  1. Was checking the wikis definitions of “memoir” and I liked Gore Vidal’s personal definition; “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
    ..quite the undertaking this “memoirs” thing, probably be a lot easier if ya kept up a diary. Wouldn’t that be handy, just flip back..or even pictures, that’d be better for me, trying to make sense from years of rambling would probably make my head explode.

  2. When my nephew died, I wrote about in three ways: in my diary, in a collection of poetry, and in a memoir. The first and some of the second were written at the time; the latter and a few more poems were written afterwards. What amazes me is that all three of these things, all written by the same person about the same event, are so vastly different to read (and not just because of the format). My diary entry on the day of his death ends with: “I am shattered. I have cried so hard for so long. I don’t know what to write.” It was only later, when writing what is much more of a memoir, that I could look past the shock and helplessness of that moment to find words for it. “I am shattered” became four pages.

    Interestingly, when writing the memoir, I did not look back at the diary once. The poetry, sure, but the diary remained untouched. I was surprised to learn that the memoir better reflected my loss than the diary.

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