stranger than fiction

(1 february 2007)

my heart belongs to nonfiction. sometimes i feel i am alone in this, thus, i must periodically be all yay! rah! and mount an unsolicited defense.

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  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. nonfiction 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 people we don’t.

but that is precisely nonfiction’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 nonfiction, 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. 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 atrocious 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 nonfiction, you fight the good fight and then you let them be.

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