Recently, my first piece of published non-fiction* entered the world, and non-fiction is a genre I adore, so I’m particularly grateful to see my writing in the field housed in a good home like The Rumpus.
I have to say, though: Oh, I find making things up so much easier.
When reading fiction, a reader can be bored or dislike something and put the work down, but, barring really egregious research fail, it’s hard for the fiction writer to be wrong. The suspension of disbelief is embedded in the art of fiction; readers are more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt until given specific reason to do otherwise.
In non-fiction, which purports to represent reality at least to some measure, one can be wrong so much more easily, I think. I’m not talking specifically about facts, though that’s certainly the most immediate and recognizable incorrect, but rather that the assumption is then, if non-fiction deals with reality, then the writer and the reader are approaching the subject matter from the same locus. That makes it easier to assess–and sometimes easier to engage in and identify with, and that’s one of the great pleasures of non-fiction. Readers know reality; we’re all in it. You know, theoretically.
I often worry that I fall more into that “theoretically” category than is probably healthy. I’m not sure I have the strongest grip on reality, in that fiction has always felt more real to me. I can categorically say I spend more time thinking about fiction(fictional worlds, people, and situations, well above and beyond the actual fiction I am or have been writing) than about my own experiences. I apply narrative to things that have no entrenched, absolute narrative (often in sports and music, where narrative may be suggested but not definitive). It’s not a particularly conscious act on my part; it’s simply how it’s been.
I also question reality because it’s become quite clear that people do not see the world in the same way. There are mounds of evidence culled from massively important social, religious, and emotional spheres to illustrate this, but the one that makes it stick is a memory from a graduate school fiction workshop. The professor brought to class an ashtray, a fairly conventional-looking, deep indigo blue ceramic ashtray. He asked the workshop to write about it, to describe it, and he gave us ten minutes. We wrote, we shared, and at the end of the exercise, he slapped the table.
“None of you got the color right. None of you. It’s the exact shade of Minnesota Vikings purple. The exact shade of their helmets.”
I tell you, reader, that ashtray could no more be called purple than the Vikings’ helmets could be called blue.
But the moment drove home an important point: in that very talented writer and professor’s eyes, the ashtray was not only capable of being classified as purple, but as a most pure and saturated purple. My father had a navy blue minivan for a while (so very definitively navy that it was described so on the from-the-dealer tag), and that van was called purple by many. As a lover of color-related words, I was (am) a little mental over this phenomenon, particularly with regard to my own dad, who can differentiate between a dozen dozen shades of brown to locate the particular hue of a whitetail deer in autumn.
But color must be as all things are: subjective, to a certain point. Linguistically, the differences in various languages for expressing the colors blue and green seem particularly fraught and complex. Left with time to percolate, this understanding that my eyes do not process color in the same way as someone else’s (and colorblindness is a wholly different issue) has seeped into a lot of other areas. I wonder about the real version. I’m not often so full of hubris that I assume my own version is the most true (though it is really, really hard when I’m naming colors), which leads me to questioning everything.
At its most basic, it’s lead to me being angry about situations that necessitate wearing sunglasses because sunglasses distort and cool and shade (which is their function, yes, but I dislike it–I want the “most real” version, eye fatigue and all). At its most ridiculous, it leads me to wondering whether I’m the only one seeing the traffic signal turn green. What if it’s still actually red? After a pretty terrifying bit of driving outside of Flagstaff as I returned from Arizona, it had me actually considering whether I might have already died. My mind turned the morning into a film cliche: the ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead. As I crept along in four inches of wet, heavy snow, looking at other cars that had slid from the road, spinning circles into the median, and holding my breath every time a tractor trailer passed me because the slush-spray threw an impenetrable white blindness over the whole car, I was really starting to consider it possible. Or inevitable.
By the time I emerged from the worst of the snow, I decided that at least my half-baked grip on reality was entertaining if I was going to spend the next eighteen hours in the car, alone. I am never bored.
The drive ended well enough (and late/early enough), and despite the very concrete physical evidence of it all (like how much it hurt and lessened yet other hurts when I peeled myself from the driver’s seat for the last time), it still didn’t feel like what must be someone else’s version of real. What does a haze of snowflakes look like at three in the morning? The weather became a wholly different thing when I turned on my high beams. In lower light, in the final hundred miles, one snowflake hit the windshield once in a while, not even enough to make me turn the wipers on. In brighter–which I used whenever I could because my eyes staged pronghorn ready to spring at every mile marker–it looked like heading into warp space, a thousand thousand white speckles approaching from the deep because the storm was coming from the west to the east, and I was driving toward it. The light caught each flake, turning it into one of those small stretched lights, like this was the U.S.S. Enterprise. Back to low-beams? Six white dots in lazy distance, an afterthought. Again to high? A deluge of powder.
But I didn’t see a single pronghorn–in fact, not a single creature in the trip–because wild things are smart enough to hunker down in the face of bad weather. They did their moving before the wind changed. Ungulates, too, are mostly crepuscular, not nocturnal, and I know that. And yet, there they were, in the reflector-glint at the roadside, eyes in every discarded aluminum can. Both caution and exhaustion create these phantoms, which revealed their mile-marker or litter-based nature as I passed, but I want to know, empirically, which is the more real: the way my mind did make those shapes and the way I saw that heavy slanting snow; or the concrete knowledge that there were no pronghorn beside the road?
I know that there are principles of velocity that give reason to the snow’s appearance. I know there are neurochemical explanations for the imagined animals. I’m asking the wrong question in wanting one or the other, and perhaps that’s what non-fiction does: it lets the writer and the reader contemplate that intersection. It’s still an anxious place, though, for me as a writer. When I write fiction, I know what constitutes that imagined real. It is finite and it is absolute because it’s mine. If I’ve done my job at the sentence level, there isn’t that same intersection of maybe blue, maybe purple. If it is deep indigo blue, it is that. The same holds true at the sentence level in non-fiction, too, of course; the writer still has to choose the words carefully to arrive at whatever version of true or correct or real is being represented. But in fiction, I am certain of that version. Fiction is one of the few things in this world about which I am certain.
When I walked to my front door that night, at three-thirty in the morning, all I can say is that it was snowing hard, and still there was no trace of it on the ground.
* I’m going to use non-fiction instead of creative non-fiction in this, though I have to say that I really mean the same thing by both terms as I apply it to my own work: writing grounded in truth. Essay–but essay, in my mind, connotes more breadth, depth, and length than my own pieces I’m referring to here, none of which are over two thousand words. Creative non-fiction–but that connotes a less pre-determined course in the actual act of writing, and the pieces I’ve linked here were done with quite concrete goals and final purposes in mind. So…wibbly-wobbly lingo-bingo writey-blighty stuff.