Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why So Serious?

When I finished my last graduate class last semester, I had my mom take a picture of me surrounded by all the books I read during my two and a half years in the program.  Most were nonfiction and most of those were memoirs.  The books covered topics such as blindness, racism, mental illness, genetic disorders, poverty, abuse, sexuality, substance abuse and addiction, adoption, lying, death, and neglect. There was a book about bullying and divorce, another about sex and the color blue. Each book had a different structure, tone, and tempo, and each one succeeded in causing me to feel something: anger, hurt, relief. But, although some of them handled moments of levity with as much deftness as they tackled tougher topics, not one made me laugh out loud. In fact, the only book I remember causing me to snort when I read it was a book for my spy novel class, and even then I felt like laughing was somehow illicit in graduate school.  Dirty.  Less valuable than writing about tragedy. Humor, it seems, has no business in “literary” writing; in the words of Rodney Dangerfield it “get[s] no respect.  But, as much as I appreciate debating the finer points of truthfulness in CNF and exploring the musicality of the lyric essay, I can’t help but feel as though part of the discussion is missing, particularly surrounding well-written, genuinely funny nonfiction.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fifteen False or True Starts

Guest blog post from Tanya Paperny in response to the recent discussion regarding truth, lyric essays, and John D'Agata:

Fifteen False or True Starts

1.) Holy shit, you just blew my mind. These were the only words I managed to scribble in my pocket-sized black Moleskine. I couldn't come up with any other way to respond to the reading I'd just heard other than to indicate complete and total mind-blown-ded-ness. I just had to surrender and listen.

2.) When Amy Leach read "Memorandum" at the recent “In Praise of the Essay” symposium, I’d been taking notes all day with the expectation that I'd write some sort of straightforward review of the event. I figured the day's panels, lectures, and readings would reinforce the distinctions between fiction, nonfiction, the essay, journalism, and other forms. But then Leach read, and I was stunned. Who was she? Was she being presented to us as an essayist? And what were these works she read? Were they essays? She read two more wildly imaginative pieces, "Sail On, My Little Honey Bee" and "Comfortless." Her un-categorizable writing seemed to take a fantasy, a day dream, a digression, and write it to its charmingly logical extreme. Her pieces used these absurd and hilarious similes: like a potato that experienced one terrible, and many average, concussions; like a frozen mouse; like walruses; like birds wading or figs rumbling or the muttering of mathematicians; like a taxidermied antelope; like the trajectory of sea ducks. I wasn't sure how any of this could be categorized as an essay because it all seemed so inventive. But then again, it was loaded with facts. I didn't know you were allowed to do this, lyrical wanderings disguised as essays.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some thoughts on the political art of CNF and John D'Agata

Photo: andrefromont

Creating a work of creative nonfiction is a political act, a form of resistance. In writing we sift through experience, ideas, and factual information to discover the real story, one that rejects the easily available cultural narratives.

When writers like James Frey or Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) lie about major events, they not only betray readers, but also this call, or purpose, of CNF. Rather than engaging in the hard work of discovering their own authentic story, they change facts in order to fit into pre-packaged narratives: Frey as that individual who can overcome any obstacle entirely on his own; Mortenson as a benevolent Westerner who selflessly helps poor villagers in foreign lands.


So where does the current blowup over John D'Agata and his problem with facts fall within this background of truth and lies in CNF scandals?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Confessions of a Research Addict

I admit it. I’m a research junkie. 
            I love sifting through articles and books for buried treasure, those golden nuggets that somehow amplify and deepen what I’m trying to write about. It's almost scary how easily I can delve for hours into a book or cyberspace, trying to unearth information about whatever happens to pique my interest at that moment. It's a dangerous addiction. I can lose myself in it, and come out feeling light-headed and slightly nauseated, as if I’ve eaten a dozen jelly donuts and have nothing to show for it but a box full of crumbs.