I unstrapped my stupid, uncomfortable bike helmet today during my 15-miler because I kept gagging on the nylon that rubbed against my neck while I attempted to swallow my anti-helmet pride. Thing is, the helmet was rendered ineffectual once I snapped loose the plastic clip. Were a sprawl of marmots to knock me into the street, the helmet would fly off and roll down the grassy hill of the Centennial Trail and my head would turn to ground chuck beneath the tires of a Dodge Viper. But I’m a cautious rider, and to anyone else watching, I was wearing a helmet; I seemed safe to my audience. But I knew I wasn’t really wearing a helmet. It’s like when my mom used to tell me to fasten my seatbelt, and I would wrap it around and sit on the tongue, but not slide it into the buckle; or brush my teeth without squeezing any toothpaste onto the bristles. Why go through the motions? What am I trying to convey to my audience? Is there any truth in my illusion of the truth?
Writing nonfiction is like driving with a cop on your tail – even when you know you’re obeying the rules, you probably aren’t. I’m tempted to make things up every time I sit down to work on an essay/memoir. But I don’t. It’s the last beam of clear-eyed idealism I have to hold on to, like refusing to talk to strangers, turning down beer and cigarettes, and so on. Unstrapping that bike helmet felt pretty good, though. And I’m about to read David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which, I’m told, proposes to bend the rules of nonfiction and destroy appropriation in ways that have upset nonfiction purists, part of whom I’ve always considered myself. This all simultaneously worries and excites me. The genre of nonfiction has yet to atrophy, and its rules are constantly changing, as though it were (sort of ironically) Wikipedia. But it is not okay to consciously make something up. Except for when it is – when one cannot remember the dialogue from a 25 year-old conversation, but one can remember just about everything else (one thinks), for example. I’ve always championed nonfiction for its limitations – one is forced to explore beneath the surface of the mundane to find their material. But I’m sort of excited about any leeway I’ll allowed myself after reading Shields’ book. I feel like I’m being offered drugs, or something.
Whatever – this was supposed to be a short post; I’ll go into more detail next week when I’ve read the thing. In the meantime, here’s David Shields interviewed on the Colbert Report.