Monday, February 28, 2011

Little Utopias and Blurring the Lines

Not too long ago, I went to the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis to watch Utopia in Four Movements, a documentary that generated plenty of buzz at the 2010 Sundance Festival. Created by San Francisco filmmakers Sam Green and Dave Cerf, it turned out to be a documentary and then some, with the extra lime twist of being live. Green was there, in person, on stage, narrating beside a screen that flashed a series of archival and original material, still and moving images. Meanwhile, a live band (The Brooklyn-based group The Quavers) played a live soundtrack. You couldn’t wait and watch this later on DVD or on your iPad or iPhone. You had to be there to watch Green riff on his four examples of 20th-century hopefulness, or you missed it, as simple as that.

So was it a documentary or a performance that I witnessed with hundreds of others that evening? It was something different, something in between. Naturally, this got me thinking about CNF, which often butts against definition, where the lines between it and other genres constantly get blurred. Part of the excitement of CNF is the way it pushes the boundaries, mutating in directions previously unimagined.

Which brings me to the idea of form. I grew to love CNF, in part, because of the wide-open possibilities it offers for form and structure. Yet such freedom can be daunting. Faced with so many possibilities, how do I begin to find the form that fits my work, my subject, my writing temperament? Watching Utopia showed me the power of letting form develop organically, and how it always, always should serve the subject. In Utopia’s case, the form itself—and the shared experience of it—is a sort of utopian gesture in this electronic age. As Green himself said in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Watching something about utopia, and doing it all together with a lot of people in the same room, creates an energy. It’s inspiring.”

Creating an energy is a way of engaging the viewer, or in the writer’s case, the reader. Having Green in the room with us, his audience, was the ultimate kind of engagement. He fed off of our energy, and we fed off of his. His presence was so strong, so visceral, that it felt as if he were talking straight to each of us. As writers, we don’t have the luxury of seeing our readers as they experience our work, of connecting with them personally. But we can still make our narrator’s presence felt in what we write by putting a strong narrative voice on the page that is in itself engaging.

Finally, Utopia opened my eyes not only to the genre-bending possibilities of creative nonfiction, but to the multi-media opportunities as well. Who says a piece of nonfiction should exist only as words on a page? With the upsurge of online journals, the world of literature is changing drasatically, and I don’t pretend to be as up to date as many people on the subject. But it seems that an electronic essay could connect to all sorts of things: music, art, animation, sound. The possibilities are endless, which is kind of a utopian thought, come to think of it.

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