Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote)

Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels.  When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true.  These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies.  Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou.  Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.

When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The different expectations  a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit.  No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v.  It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry.  Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.

Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others.  All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across.  I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely.  (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)

When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority.  So it is with most works of non-fiction.  You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it.  In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present.  Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.

That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now.  This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction.  I’ve had  a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories.  They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.

Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma.  I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction.  My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil.  You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir.  I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that.  (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.

I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to  produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information.  The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.”  So what?   Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery.  Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.

How is that not the truth?

Not everything is important (even though it is mine…)

The road trip is a standard literary conceit. Tales from the road are forward moving, full of details, imagery, odd characters, surprises, both good and bad, wonderment and disappointment. You barely need to have any real skill other than being a weariless chronicler, who hopefully has a taste for the unusual. The ability to write a full sentence probably also comes in handy, though in our world of tweeting, texting and emailing may not be as imperative as it once was.

The question remains whether there is anything of interest left to chronicle, now that the world is so known to us, our maps devoid of mysterious and vast continents where dragons were once assumed to reside. With the ever-increasing number of people who believe their adventures to be singular and of interest to an audience of admirers, and with the obsessive/compulsive photographing, recording and posting of updates of their every move, the meaningfulness, the uniqueness of any experience has been drained.

When I was younger, I felt a large disconnect between being and feeling. I would go to a concert or a party, or to some wonderful place like the Grand Canyon or Echo Rock in New Mexico, and I couldn’t say for sure whether I’d enjoyed myself. It wasn’t until I put my thoughts on paper, until the words were found to properly describe and contain the experience that I could answer the question “did you have a good time?” By remaining the observer, I was using the experience as a means to an end–something that would give me material to share with others in order to get their approval, their admiration, their envy– thus depriving myself of the joy of being there, of seeing, of feeling all at once. My life was passing me by, and the attention for my writing didn’t make up for it.

I have managed to cure myself of this disconnect, but I see it reaching epic proportions all around me. I have seen concertgoers wave their iPhones instead of lighters, trying to capture an image, some distorted sound, rather than allowing themselves to be swept away, to be enveloped and invaded by the music. At plays, I have seen people tweeting quips, making plans for their next engagement rather than allowing themselves to be fully drawn into the depths of the story and characters. At a reading I recently gave, I was told that a few audience members were texting, hiding their phones in their purses, while I spoke. If I were prone to flattering myself, I might say that they were letting all their friends know how fabulous my novel is and that they should all run out and get a copy right away. But I believe that they were suffering from the disease of absence, of distraction, of recording for others rather than being present in the moment for their own enjoyment.

It is seductive to believe that everything we observe, think, pronounce has merit, originality, import. It reminds me of teenagers on the bus having over-loud conversations in order to let the world know they exist, who believe that everything is important because it is coming from them. So it is in our world of constant self-promotion, self-aggrandizing and exposure, which creates so much noise it is hard to know what to pay attention to, and in the end cheapens everything.

What does this have to do with road trips? I spent the last week in the Adirondacks. I was about to say that I’ve resisted taking notes, but the truth is that I haven’t felt like it at all, despite acknowledging that my memory is not what it used to be. Instead I’ve been swimming in lakes, hiking up mountains, exchanging bon mots with colorful, small-town characters, and eating gargantuan servings of fried food. In fact, I have been so perfectly content staring at mountains and water that putting anything at all down in writing seems like an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the glory of just being here. I’ve remembered to take a few photos, but not always of the right things at the right time. I haven’t recorded anything either, though in retrospect I somewhat regret not having footage of the immense crows gliding past me at eye level on the summit of Whiteface Mountain. I certainly haven’t tweeted anything or updated my Facebook status. Because at the moment, this experience is finally, totally for me.

Perhaps later on when it has all sunk in, I will be able to turn some of its parts into a greater whole–a story perhaps, or an essay–something more meaningful than just a grocery list of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. Those things already exist out there: google Adirondacks, Ticonderoga, Lake Placid, Whiteface Mountain, Bolton Landing, Hague and you’ll get all the information and images you could ever hope for. Until I have something more than that to offer, I will keep it all to myself.

Time to go back to staring at the lake now.