I’m in Montana on spring break, but I hit the library before leaving town for two weeks, to pick out ten or so books, from which hopefully I could pick five to finish my thesis list. I showed the list to my thesis advisor, who quickly suggested I read Ex Libris first, a book of essays by Anne Fadiman. Study the way she makes one thing about herself relevant to the world, were my instructions. I’d never read Fadiman before, but I put the book in my stack because it was aesthetically pleasing, at least that was the first reason. The cover is fabulous—love the slightly-darker-than-seafoam-green color, love the Latin title, which I didn’t know means “from the books” but did know that “libro” is Spanish for book, and the subtitle is, after all, “Confessions of a Common Reader.” My advisor apparently thought it would be helpful to me as a writer, and Natalie Kusz, thank you, because this little book taught me and also made me really happy. I’m not shitting you when I say it was a joy to read.
Fadiman’s anything but a common reader, however. Growing up, her family grew up with Wally the Wordworm, a story her father wrote about a voracious reading worm who couldn’t find enough adventure or enough to eat in the common one and two syllable words in children’s books, and so went instead of the dictionary, eating up syzygy and ptarmigan. Read more »
I found this at The Lawn: http://www.the-lawn.net/wordpress/
It seems like this year in nonfiction, our program has changed its focus. Last year, we were all about Aboutness, i.e. “What does it meeeeeeaaaaan?” Which I can tell you, if your essay doesn’t mean anything, or perhaps just tells a nice story in a beautiful way, is annoying as hell. And so subjective. It’s an apparently crucial, but also exquisitely hard to pin down, element of “creative” nonfiction writing. It’s the one question I remember to ask myself consistently, and even if I haven’t quite made it to the point where I’m good at it, this Aboutness thing, at least I’m learning to identify it.
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One evening last fall I was involved in a discussion about Dog the Bounty Hunter. The discussion got around to his mullet, and I mentioned that it was a “great” mullet. Someone else mentioned that might be an oxymoron, but I disagreed and contended that there were levels of mullet hair as in any other hairstyle. Not all bobs are cute. Not everyone looks good with a short shorn head. Some people have lumpy heads. I was then urged to “write an essay about the good mullet.” I’m still thinking on that. Read more »
One of the most poignant scenes I’ve seen thus far in television series Friday Night Lights is on Mud Bowl, episode 20, season one, which unfolds in two scenes. During the game – the semi-finals – one of the series’ main characters is assaulted in the parking lot and shoved inside her truck by a creep she’d met at a burger shack while getting stood up by her math tutor. As each scene ascends toward its respective zenith, the lens divides its time between the two – the Panthers leaping, checking, catching, operating on their consistently chanted locker room maxim, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” against the Vikings, while rapist and girl (no spoilers – I would assign this series alongside Don Quixote in a class if I had the time and pedagogical powers to do so) fight their own battles. The brilliance of the scenes is the discomfort they engender in the viewer – one second, we’re cheering for Matt Saracen, “Smash” Williams, even deplorable dreamboat Tim Riggins, as they fight for their lives, whether or not they actually believe it. (Coach Taylor can be very persuasive.) Clear Eyes, Read more »
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.