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.

3.) I just completed a nonfiction MFA program where the boundaries between genres were emphasized rather than downplayed. One of my writing projects was about my great-grandmother, a victim of Joseph's Stalin's murderous purges in the 1930s. For one workshop submission, I wrote a short chapter imagining the last hours before her arrest, and the in-class conversation centered around whether the submission in question was in fact nonfiction. If it was, my professors insisted, then there were things I had to do in order to qualify for the nonfiction thesis and the broader world. I'd have to add a prologue or introduction or author's note explaining the epistemological basis for the fictionalized chapter. It's not that I came into the program wanting to write genre-blurring nonfiction or that I had much interest in trying formal experiments, but the discouragements heightened my sensitivity.

4.) Writing Prompt (via Montana Ray via Harryette Mullen): Write out a list of words and phrases from your childhood, things you often heard or yourself spoke, things that were important to your early years. Then alphabetize the list and see what you get. A prose poem? The start of a lyric essay?

5.) I realize that a nonfiction-specific MFA program has to reinforce its own necessity, its own raison d'être. In order to graduate, we had to write a 32,000-word manuscript, so we needed to be taught how to become successful "nonfiction writers," types of writers that poets, novelists, and short story writers couldn't teach us how to be. Much of the advice was centered around the premise that our thesis manuscripts could and would become a book: You won't get away with this. Here's what you need to do if you want to publish. But I now realize that the marketplace of ideas and the world of literary journals has a much higher tolerance for hybrid forms than the genre-segregated classroom.

6.) "…I don’t see a distinction between essay and poetry…They might occasionally use different strategies, but at their core they’re both efforts at clarity that are compelled by curiosity. Neither has much concern for story, and neither demands resolution. They are foremost judged—and judge themselves—by the quality of the mind that’s at work in the text." -- John D'Agata from Days of Yore.

People hear John D’Agata’s name ever since the release of Lifespan of a Fact and they bristle at his flexible approach to facts. He’s too cocky, too dismissive of the value fact-checking in nonfiction writing. Laura Miller of Salon even says: “Of course, the whole dispute could be fairly easily defused by labeling D’Agata’s work as a lyric essay and including an editor’s note (for the many readers as yet unfamiliar with the genre) explaining that it contains factual material but is not restricted to factual material.” But to me, this is too dismissive. Miller’s tone makes me wonder if she even considers lyric essays to be serious literary work.

7.) Honor Moore and Eileen Myles read and critiqued my 124-page MFA thesis, an essay collection I wrote as part of the requirements for graduation. In our conference to discuss the work, they both agreed that I often seemed evasive—maybe even repressed—in my writing. When those two writers, both known primarily as poets, said that to me, I instantly knew what they were talking about. I had to free myself of the nonfiction workshop strictures, to try to write things that were made up or off-topic, to write in fragments, even if only for the first draft. Sometimes I wanted to prioritize voice and flow over "fact" or "truth."

8.) The most useful parts of my MFA program were the literary translation seminars and workshops I took. We spent class time arguing about word choice and placement, about the sound of a word and whether or not it was a false cognate, about the implications of words and word order, about rhythm and white space on the page. For the first time, I was in a room with poets and fiction writers who didn’t care if the “I” in my pieces was really me, and together we joyfully read international literature and work from writers with no single genre home, like Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Francisca Aguirre, and Carmen Naranjo.

9.) Writing Prompt: Read Anne Carson's "Candor" (or anything by Anne Carson, for that matter). Write down or notice some of the literary strategies at work. Pick one or two that you most admire or want to emulate. Write something—anything—that utilizes the strategies you have identified.

10.) In nonfiction workshops, the playful things always felt indulgent because they didn't "push the narrative forward." In fact, playing with form was not wasting the reader's precious time or attention. Lyrically tossing an idea around—a digression—can be the point of a piece or a means to an end. I needed to be told that.

11.) "The lyric essay doesn't expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or side-winding poetic logic. It often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically, its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. It partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language, and partakes of the essay in its weight, its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form. It gives primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursiveness, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation." -- John D'Agata (via David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto)

12.) The first "Best American Essays" collection was released in 1986. The foreword by series editor Robert Atwan referred to the collection as "long overdue" and one that "calls attention to the essay as a vital and remarkable versatile literary form." (The short story series of the same name had been released annually since 1915.) The second piece in the collection is Joseph Brodsky's "Flight from Byzantium," a sort of travelogue-cum-diary-cum-history lesson-cum-philosophical rant. His numbered entries allow for tangential digressions. Why should I have been so surprised that such a non-straightforward piece was included in this first-ever essay collection? After all, ruminative essay forms have always existed (think Michel de Montaigne). Why had I not seen more of this? I spent the last two years in an academic environment where we pretended that formal experiments were dangerous or not likely to be published.

13.) Writing Prompt: Get old postcards that have images or photographs on the front (try a yard sale or thrift store). Select one and write a letter in the space of the postcard inspired by the image. Use any literary form.

14.) Isn't nonfiction, such a roomy term says David Shields, inherently a hybrid form? Does it not rely upon a mixture of the literary techniques of fiction, the writer’s perspective or voice, and factual information?

15.) I want to write an essay about what I wish I had been taught about the essay, what I find exciting about experimental nonfiction, but maybe I should instead stop asking people to do the work for me and just write.


  1. Tanya, I love your piece. I'm an Anne Carson, John D'Agata, David Shields fan, too; I love how they transcend genre. And I love how you pull all your thoughts and sources together to transcend a mere discussion of the essay.

  2. Tanya, around the year you were born, after about 5 years of my emigration from the USSR, I took a Creative Writing class at UCLA Extension. I was shocked by the number of rules one was to follow (how to compose the first sentence, how to arrange paragraphs, etc.). Nothing like that had ever been mentioned to me before. As a result, all Russian-language nonfiction writing started to sound sloppy, chaotic and unstructured. At the same time, all American nonfiction writing started to sound predictable, rigid and unimaginative. The rule I invented for myself was: learn all the tricks they teach and then erase them from your memory. In the erased form they will help to avoid chaos and sloppiness without making your writing rigid and predictable. But that's the best case scenario...