The Woodchipper

presented as part of a panel, "What's Normal in Nonfiction," at AWP 2011


I believe it is necessary to separate out what we mean by nonfiction if we are to talk about it in any depth. After all, nonfiction is a descriptor, a choice of bookstore shelves, not a genre, not a form. What nonfiction means—and what it foregrounds—and hence what its rules are, if any—depends on what sort of nonfiction it is.

First, let us ask: does our nonfiction aspire to art? If so, then great. There aren't really any rules. Everything is okay by me if it's done well enough.

If it does not aspire to art, it's a different sort of nonfiction—written to illuminate or explain a thing, intended primarily as information. This nonfiction is built on fact. And it should be judged on how it represents fact. My radio repair manual fails if it's mostly about how to give a giraffe a colonoscopy.


Okay. So you've chosen art. Next question. You are in a room. There are two altars. One is story. One is world slash fact.

The memoir worships first at the altar of story.

Most questions of ethics and rules come up only when we worship story. The ethical risk is greater for the memoirist because readers evidently want some semblance of realness, but first and most importantly they want story, often more or less the same story (trauma, trouble, redemption, repeat).

It's easy to see why. Story's an easy pleasure. And somehow we feel better about story if the story is presented as true. We're tired of untrue stories because so much of what we see and how we live is a fiction of some sort—we're being marketed to, product-placed, spun, or outright lied to, not to mention the continuing confabulation of identity and belonging. We're buried in stories. Or fragments of them. So much of the world feels unreal that it's easy to feel like we're floating, not feeling, not being. But story—contrived artifice as it is—makes us feel. It is a powerful anchor.

Believing that the story is true means we can relax and shut off our critical faculties. We don't have to do the hard work of suspending our disbelief—and it is work, that entry into story. We don't question what we're being told, whether it beggars belief. Every time we have to make the entry it takes something out of us. This is one reason why many readers prefer the novel to the story collection—you only have to suspend your disbelief once in a novel.

So story's an anchor. It is also an all-consuming fiction. Add story to truth, truth to story, and you've got something that people want. Actually, you just have story. Add story to anything and story eats it. Whatever you had was gone, and is now just story. Not true story but story.

Experience is fragment and fleeting fact, mostly meaningless, unassembled, do-it-yourself. Story organizes meaning—it creates meaning—and once it's story it's no longer anything real. In fact recent science tells us that the only way we encode memory is narratively—and those memories change as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves change. So we can't have unstoryized memories. There's no such thing. There's no such thing as true story.

My point is that if we want story, then we shouldn't complain about how fictional our fictions are. The better question we should ask ourselves: are we not entertained?

We are. We enjoy this outing. The hunt is on for lawbreaking memoirs. It's a national pastime. In 1972—circa Watergate, circa Vietnam, circa Nixon—Clifford Irving published his fake Howard Hughes autobiography. The subsequent investigations, the research, the hole-poking, the media hounding, the lies, the confessions—all the media and popular spectacle surrounding the book tells us that as a culture we enjoyed this. We may have been lied to by our politicians on an epic, international scale, but this smaller lie—this entertaining, ultimately meaningless lie—was a safe thing to attack. Compare this to the timing of the James Frey scandal, the media frenzy occurring while the nation was again being lied to, as we were neck-deep in Iraq hunting WMDs. Frey's, too, was a safe lie. He was a slow, easy, apolitical target.


Back to our nonfiction sorting hat. If memoir worships story, then the nonfiction that worships world and subject and fact first is essay. And why would the essayist need to make anything up? Why would she want to? The world does nothing but offer up spectacular material when we look closely enough at it. Maybe it doesn't fit where we hoped it would, but that's an opportunity to reinvent our essays around what we find.

For the essayist, story's a secondary pleasure, if it's a pleasure at all. It's not the same temptation. The essay is about thinking, about subject and self. Having said that, you can't totally give up narrative drive, or sense of arc, or rise and fall, the first plush of discovery and the rush of ending, but that's not what gets the essayist hot. What wires us up, more often, is the sheer odd fact of the real and our thinking about it. Take for example Billy Idol's 1993 album Cyberpunk that came packaged with a 3 ½" floppy disk purporting to "transport you electronically into the thoughts and world of Billy Idol": this is too good to be made up. You don't need to do much to it to make it sing. Just stroke its crotch and its crotchety jacket. It's so fully itself, a misguided artistic statement, with the dystopian monologues, the Jock Jam synth guitars, the throbbing bass lines, the shouts and the shrieks, the awful/awesome cover of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin"—of course it's real. It has to be real. It's so vivid, even 18 years later. It's a document of Billy Idol's mental state in 1991-1993. (It's also a document of my mental state in 1993.) It's fascinating. Why would you even need to make this stuff up? If we pay attention to the world, we can skip the ethics lecture.

All of this is to say that if we want story, then story we'll have. But it won't be truth, whatever that is. It won't be fact. Story is interpretive. Story is confabulated. Story is subjective, edited, intentionally or not, chemically, in memory, repeatedly.

But since this panel asks us for rules, here's one: don't be a self-aggrandizing liar. Don't lie in ways that make you look better or seem cooler or more hardcore. Lying to look worse, however, is okay, because it's for us, it's for art, not for you.


But really, screw the rules.

Literary nonfiction is no place for the rule-followers anyhow. The essay thrives on idiosyncracy, even perversity, on the workings of the individual mind. It parks at expired meters. Feels ironic, then hardcore, then ironic again, blasting De La Soul in its GPSed Subaru with butt warmers on high.

Creative nonfiction in general is no place for the pious, the reverent, the pertinent. Good girls: y'all go on home. Like hackers or raccoons we who remain will pry open whatever. Creative is forever prying open nonfiction, creating a space inside it for artful exploration. Or if you prefer, literary is dry-humping nonfiction. Or lyric is giving a wedgie to essay. And essay is always pulling itself apart because it likes suffering.

In that sense, the only reason for rules is so we have something to break, to bend, to spindle, to mutilate. And that, I think, is a powerful rationale for us to all embrace every rule we can find. As information theorist Bruce Mau puts it, "now that we can do anything, what will we do?" It's hard to tackle formlessness, limitlessness without some scaffolding or sense of the boundaries.

Writers are not well behaved. We want something to push against. We need you critics to tell us what not to do, so we can do it, you pissed folks who bought Frey's book and returned it in rage, you Oprahs, you hair-splitters about literary ethics—we need you on that wall.

Our role as nonfictioners who aspire to art is to say, think, and build something interesting, interestingly. If we worship story, then we need to understand that story is what we're workshopping, I mean worshipping. In that pursuit we're feeding truth into the woodchipper, feet-first. It screams real loud as it goes.