01 February 2007

7 stranger than fiction

my heart belongs to nonfiction. sometimes i feel the bombshell and i are alone in this, thus, we must periodically be all yay! rah! and mount an unsolicited defense. because nonfic is so often maligned. it's the math of the literary world. there are facts and figures and quotes and proofs- consequently, it's harder to bullshit your way through. and us english-heads, we like our bullshit.

any fiction i've ever attempted has been complete pretentious crap. but, for the most part, the writing process isn't so different. yes, there are the safety nets of notecards and quotes and the nonfic-specific unexpected pitfalls- the uncited factoid and (horror of horrors!) the apocryphal anecdote. but there are also the same scary moments of where the hell are we going here? and the epiphanies where everything suddenly falls into place.

nonfic is very peter pan. it's an ancient genre but an exceedingly immature one. the only true standard is that biography is more about the biographer than the subject, which is a rather pathetic standard since it so clearly needs to be the other way around. truth be told, nonfic has limits that writers simply aren't pushing. it's a form older than the novel but one with which all too few liberties have been taken.

which is why there is still this stereotype. this lingering sense that fiction is the artistic end-all and nonfic is simply it's easy sister. that, because you're working with a real life that has already been lived and real events that have already happened, everything is neatly plotted out and tied with a bow. that notion couldn't be further from the reality. because writers of nonfic are dealing with reality, and reality- though it may appear concrete- is an ephemeral patchwork of contrasting impressions. and that's a hell of a hard thing to pin down.

nonfic is intimate and personal and intrusive. and it's more than a little gauche- to be peeking through people's love letters and into their bedrooms and between their sheets. to be supposing what they were thinking. because we never know what anyone is thinking- even the people we know, much less historical figures.

but that is precisely nonfic's beguiling allure. this sense that you can become acquainted with someone from the past, that you can learn from them and understand them without knowing them. because they are characters. and when you write about these characters, they are uniquely yours. they become a tiny piece of your own makeup.

in real life, people are inconsistent. they change direction and marry precipitously and say mean things and screw up their kids. they are almost always misunderstood. in fiction, you're at ease to plot around that. that, in and of itself, may be your plot. in nonfic, you're working in spite of it, which is a terribly humbling thing.

you must nancy drew your way through twelve different versions of the same event spun twelve entirely different ways to find some shard of the way it really might have been. to me, that has always been the maddeningly exhilarating element. it's like pulling at a strand of tangled hair. sometimes you can coax it apart. sometimes you just rip the damn thing out.

jackie and i have had some major throwdowns. moments where she said completely shitty things at random deathbeds and left me to make sense of these incomprehensible actions. things that my jackie would never have done but jackie did them nonetheless. and there's no avoiding them, because they are what made her jackie.

it's scary. that moment when your character goes out of character and you're left staring at a stranger you know everything about but never knew. and you curse her and fight to find the words and write a whole heap of paragraphs trying to justify this one little inexplicable blip in a character so otherwise explicable. and then you delete the whole lot and let her win.

and maybe that's the difference. fictioneers fight their characters to win. in nonfic, you fight the good fight but then you let them be.


Bombsy said...

I feel that, no matter how hard one tries, reality is always more interesting and fascinating than fiction. We have consitantly seen through our biographical readings that the shortened, dramatized version of a life is never as gripping as the way it actually unfolded. the problem is, no one takes the time to read the big huge books that appear to be historical and boring. take cleopatra for instance...in the movies, she meets antony, they have a fight, get married, fight a war and die. what most people don't know is that she nearly died delivering his twins and lay comatose while he was off marrying augustus' sister mere months after he had married her. nobody takes the time to get there, so they miss the hidden fabulousness.
but we know.

oline said...

when i die, i am making you my feet.

Bombsy said...

you can put me in your hair, i'll be happy there.

Les Savy Ferd said...

and i thought i was the only one who was enamored of the "you can stand up for me," lyric partner. Alas mr wolf parade, all your contemporaries are releasing albums this spring... what sayest thou?

'... side projects...'

Damn you! Get the kids back together and let's work something out. The world needs your fabulousness.

(and and lights out post, by the by. *someone* hasn't posted in a while and for that he, i mean they, apologies. hehe, apologies to the Queen Oline, even)

Les Savy Ferd said...

what in the bluef@ck is wrong with my spelling and syntax lately? Consider yourself LUCKY i haven't posted. sheesh.

Les Savy Ferd said...

i'm not done.

As an aside, call it a defense of fiction if you will, I'm reading pevear and volokhonsky's translation of _Anna Karenina_ and can i say it beats the pants off any biography I've ever read. I suppose good prose is just good prose no matter fict or non-fict, but damn, some works just level the playing field. And maybe i just like fiction more because I've read so much good fiction and know how and where to find more. With bios I'm sure its more difficult. a more closed society where the people with the in-knowledge on who and what authors to trust are few and farther between. There isn't too much risk involved picking up a tolstoy, you know what you are getting, more or less, but a random biography on Lincoln? Yipes, stripes, fruit stripes gum! (its the yummy fruity one) sorry, random advertisements from my youth sometimes bubble up to derail my theses at the most crucial points. Damn you Late Capitalism and your sinfully sleak product placement!

where was I? oh crap.

oline said...

ah! the glorious return of the pirate. bombsy and i were just discussing the mystery of your whereabouts. we afeared they'd given you the ole heave ho off the SoSlo and we'd have to check the michiganding shores for clue-bearing bottles from the dread pirate cosbO. if this diss of fiction didn't bring you back to shore- and if we were a less hope-holding-ontos people- we were abouts to give up the faith. (how's that for janked up syntax?!)

and yes, we are enamored of the "you can stand up for me" lyric.

to the cracks in the crossbeams!