While I was teaching an advanced creative nonfiction course one recent spring, Sherman Alexie blasted Nasdijj in Time for stealing his story. As several major newspapers and journals got in the line of shame-on-you-ers, my students and I were discussing The Blood Runs Like a River through My Dreams. Nasdijj's memoir was vilified for its falsified Navajo persona created by author Tim Barrus. Blurb on cover: "An authentic, important book... unfailingly honest and very nearly perfect." Oops. I let my students get through the entirety of the memoir before I told them the truth, actually offered them a link to Alexie's article, along with one from the Navajo Times, through the class blog and asked for comments. Posts and comments came in quickly, and most were negative: all shock and scorn. However, many came to the writer's defense. "I don't care if he's a liar; we all are," wrote one young man. Of course, I used the articles as a critical exercise in order to foment debate and various critical responses about the genre they were writing, exemplified by the work they had just read. I assured them, and perhaps myself, that I assigned the memoir for the writing, and I'll stand by my claim that it's still writing worth reading, though the reading experience will no doubt now be completely different, each word shadowed by scandal. I was surprised one day to find a posting from "Nasdijj" himself on the class blog, his response to a discussion about persona, following the students' discovery that Tim Barrus had, at one time, been an advice columnist for Genesis, a gay male pornography publication. Commenting on this discussion, I had posted the following question:
Question: So if Nasdijj writes as a Navajo when he's not, why are some jumping to the conclusion that he's gay? Just a question. Is Nasdijj/Tim Barrus/writer of a 1,000 personas (when does persona cross a line?) just writing a litany of the most lucrative personas?
Good question re: SEXUALITY. For years, I wrote/ghosted an advice column for a men's magazine where "real" men were supposedly writing to a PORN STAR about their sexual problems. Of course, if they had known it was me they were writing to...
Does that make me a porn star?
It makes me a struggling writer trying to raise children and pay the rent. I'd write porn again in a minute if I could get away with it and get paid for it. For all the screaming that goes on on the Internet, I make less than ten thousand dollars a year.
So. I wrote porn for the ADVOCATE. They pay on acceptance.
Does that make me gay?
If I write about dogs does it make me a veterinarian?
And this is where I led my students in class the next day: How far do we, can we, go in creating a persona? How is persona like character? What truths do you find in this work? For the latter, I had them write on the board the truths they found in the book. Truths, as we defined it, being "ideas, thoughts, feelings that you can identify with or have learned through experience to be valid." The whiteboard filled quickly with various quotes, allusions, and one-word responses. Still, some of the students weren't willing to accept a truth if that truth had been presented under false pretenses. We didn't come to a consensus. I didn't intend, or even desire, such an outcome. I wanted them to consider the questions in relation to their own writing, their responsibility, their proximity to facts and the truth and how close or far they were willing to go. Another scandal, involving James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces, published as a memoir, became the focus of a media indictment, with Oprah, who had initially revered Frey's book on her show, shaking the brightest accusatory torch.
The summer before the media mêlée, Charles Blackstone and I sat on my front porch one afternoon positing the disarming of the divide between fiction and nonfiction by discussing our own writings, his stories, my essays, and eventually, we arrived at the conclusion that an anthology placing these essays/stories side by side would create a cogent dialogue between the two genres. Whatever genre you write, whether it be creative nonfiction, fiction, or both, tells, I believe, its own story.
In the home where I grew up in Mesquite, Texas, we had a front bedroom. Here my mother kept the albums my parents had long stopped listening to: the Eagles, the Four Seasons, the one with that great song about December, Carole King's Tapestry. I'd pull these records off the shelf and consider them the words and music that had at one time captured my parents' earlier lives, wondering why they had abandoned them; after all, we still had a record player. I had one in my room. Though I was too young to recall this, my older brother by sixteen years kept his own set of records, some of which were now in this pile, and on afternoons while he still lived at home, he'd move a speaker to an open window and listen as he worked outside, mowing the yard perhaps, or just hanging out. I don't remember; I was four when he left home for college in his red VW bug. There was so much about this family I did not know or did not remember. I can only imagine that's why I resurrected the lyrics and melodies of these silenced songs and played them in my own room, becoming an aficionado of Seventies music. Though it wasn't the Seventies I was trying to relive in my room, it was what I could not possibly be a part of: the past I was there for but did not recall. The years before me when my parents had dreams, and when those dreams failed, they found new ones, or at least settled for the things that came along.
Also in that front room, my mother kept a typewriter. I'm not sure she ever used it, but I can remember pulling a chair up to the desk regularly and typing. I even had a typewriting book, one of the large ones that would fold over so that you could balance it on the desk next to the typewriter and practice: bbjjffvv. But I wasn't just typing, I was writing a book, what I would later learn was called a memoir. Its title clear in my head, The Coach's Daughter, my book was to detail the life I led in Texas as the daughter of a head football coach. Even though I loved going to the field house with my father on Saturdays, envisioned those high school boys as grown men mysteries, and in later years developed a crush on one or two a season, I can recall feeling that I had a unique window into a life, a world, that I wanted to let others see through. I'd go into the front room daily, a writer's persistence already instilled within me, and write, much to my mother's protests that I should be playing outside. Though when I played outside, it involved sitting under a tree with my dog Skeeter, narrating my thoughts and feelings at length. Too much in your head, a phrase a man once used to describe me. In those early years, the only way that internalization found any air was in writing. Of course, I didn't conceptualize it that way at the time, I just felt a need to write, as if it was something I did, like the way I sing or hum all the time without noticing until someone points it out to me. Bottom line: I suspect I write stories that have never been told. If I make anything up, it's still true.
A student of mine had come back from Christmas break after a stint in rehab. When James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces was shot down by thesmokinggun.com, my student came to my office after a discussion in my nonfiction class of the ramifications of the media maelstrom. "I actually read Frey's book while I was in rehab," he told me, something I'm sure he didn't want to share in class, which was unfortunate, though fair. After all, wouldn't an addict in a rehabilitation facility be an expert on the truth of Frey's foray into the addict mind? My student told me that the book had been kind of a passed-around contraband in rehab, because Frey so vehemently disparages the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the foundation of most rehabilitation facilities. My student told how he'd borrowed the book from a fellow drunk, read it in two days, and passed it on—and so on it went. He said, "My counselor said that all the AA old-timers say Frey's gonna go back to drinking. He's gonna crash." To me, well to all of us the student told, this was the debate about Frey's book. "I mean here we all were locked up for twenty-eight days, and Frey essentially says that you have a choice: drink or don't. And he hasn't. At least that's what he claims in the book. But none of that matters to me. What I took from it was I had a choice, too."
Charles sent me an e-mail during the Frey frenzy: "The only truth is in fiction."
Please. Let's not simplify the distinction between fiction and nonfiction with the adage "Truth is stranger than fiction." First, creative nonfiction has a difficult time defining itself. Now, set it down for cocktails with its etymologically opposing genre, and we're going to be here long past happy hour. First, how are we to define truth? I had a professor who once demanded that all terms in a literary analysis be defined for clarification and limitation purposes. Should we begin by defining fiction? Nonfiction? This anthology presumes to race beyond that starting gate to consider where the genres intersect, commingle, challenge genre lines. We wish to problematize the distinctions, in the debate that follows, through authors' selected works and their respective commentaries. If you want to join the debate, begin by completing the following statements:
Fiction is _________.
Nonfiction is _________.
Now, alternate your answers. Do they still work? If your answer is yes, where might you find meanings in order to distinguish? If your answer is no, you have already completed this section of the program. However, if, like us, you find that taking a stance foils the opportunity for exploration and debate, read on. We have purposely not identified the pieces in this anthology by genre so that readers might be able to discuss the merits of each piece without labeling while also proving that putting a label on some of these is more like the Gilbert family trying to identify that final, elusive answer from the survey on Family Feud, or for you younger readers, a viewer accurately picking out the top twelve of American Idol at the beginning of the season.
So there I was, a student, spending my afternoons in that front room on Grubb Street, typing what it was like to be me. I felt against the world, or that my world was against me. I wanted to put it down, imagined a film being made of my story, my struggles. What those struggles were at the age of nine, I cannot recount, but I have an idea. Even though the situations and persons involved have changed, I still have something within me that feels the same way it did when I sat in Mrs. Hopkins's fourth-grade class. Eventually, I abandoned the book-length project for cheerleading and light blue letter jackets in middle school. From that point through high school, my writing turned to poetry, where I confessed my secret loves and longings in easy, rhymed verse. One thing that did not change, however, was my penchant for listening to only Seventies music. By the time I was in college, I had collected all of the Eagles CDs and kept the On the Border album that I had rescued from that front room as a showpiece in my various apartments and duplexes through graduate school. I liked showing everyone that the original price sticker remained: thirty-three cents. Eagles at a bargain, simpler times that I wasn't trying to get back in my writing, but get at.
Some of you may be reading this anthology as part of an introductory creative writing course. During one of my own intro courses, after the class had studied and written both fiction and creative nonfiction, I put the two genres on the board and asked students to tell me the basic elements of each, beginning with fiction. We had studied craft by reading John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. We began our list: plot, character, dialogue, narrator, description, detail, setting. Now, I said, let's do creative nonfiction. One student from the back suggested we could list the same items we had included for fiction. I wrote the same characteristics under the CNF column and waited for the inevitable question: What's the difference? Indeed. As we pondered, students added the following to CNF: persona, voice, memory, truth. Next question: Can't those go under fiction as well? Sure they can. An interesting discussion, whether you're in an introductory class or a graduate seminar, or talking about the genres with fellow writers over coffee, would be: Where do we go from here? What might we add to each column to differentiate the two genres?
For many years, I didn't write anything but poetry; in fact, I entered the University of Colorado's Masters Program in Creative Writing for poetry, until my final semester when I took a creative nonfiction course and read the introduction to Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay. Reading his descriptions of the essayist—"the desire for contact," "world-weary personae," "candor," and "self-disclosure"—I thought, This is me. Just as Pablo Neruda claimed to have been found by poetry, I knew the essay had found me, and I felt myself open up the poems I had been writing to expose the emotions and ruminations that hid between their lines. The essay comes naturally to me—its purpose, its patterns, its persona, my persona. The first essay I ever wrote, "On Longing," captured my capacity to miss, to long, for desiring never to be fulfilled. I continue to write about distances, the "betweenness" of my existence, but I've always felt that when I write essays, what I'm truly embarking upon is an exploration of answers I cannot possibly know, the conversations never allowed, the words unwilling to be shared. I dig down into the unknown, though Lopate says it better: "Personal essayists are adept at interrogating... they ask... what it is they don't know—and why." In other words, I write what I don't know, have never known, and probably never will.
A couple of years ago, I sent a piece that I had written as an essay, then later revised into a story, to a journal. The editors' response: "This appears to be creative nonfiction rather than short fiction though we do welcome nonfiction submissions." Clearly, I hadn't fooled anyone. A year later, when I had a creative nonfiction piece that I thought worked quite well for the journal, I sent it to the nonfiction editor. Response: "Thank you for your fiction submission. We felt the characters weren't really developed and thought you might move the part of the husband leaving to the opening of the story."
With each essay that I write, I sit down to interrogate absences, those "misses" in memory or in reality. I write my grandmother, a woman I understood but didn't know very well. I write my father's story, one I've only heard a portion of. I write the distance between my mother and my self, and while my words are not meant to create a solution or even a catharsis (though sometimes they do offer closure), they are a means of communicating, a luxury not privileged in my family. I tell my students that perhaps the reason I write essays is because I was raised in a family that did not talk about things.
When I was teaching in Utah, my department was fortunate enough to have Bernard Cooper, whose work appears in this anthology, and Erika Krouse, author of Come Up and See Me Sometime, a collection of stories, give both readings and master classes. First, Cooper. The morning after his delightful reading, he came to my creative nonfiction class after agreeing to listen to some of the students' pieces and offer feedback. One young man read a piece that "sounded like fiction": there was no I, rather two characters named Juan and Marie; there was no young college student in the story, rather a young boy who showed his father his math homework; no ruminations, rather a story about the missed equations. Cooper encouraged the young man to continue what the young man had introduced as a "short story," though I knew that the student had written the piece as a metaphor about his own missed opportunity between him (middle name John) and a young woman in the class (middle name Marie). Exercise: Call a short story an essay. Call an essay a short story. What ensues? Next, Krouse. During her reading, she spoke about how many readers mistake her female voices for her own. She's one of those writers who is often bombarded with the "Did that really happen?" question. In her master class, she explained that while some people collect stamps, other books, she collects people, as she held up a small black notebook in which she writes down stories she hears about people or impressions she has of people she meets. In fact, at dinner one night, the fiction writer in our program told a story about his childhood, and she quickly inquired, "Can I have that?" We all borrow, it seems, from (for?) ourselves or from (for?) others in order to write the works we need to write.
There are essays I am not ready to write, because I cannot access the emotion necessary to write them. Perhaps I am not ready to explore the truth of them. Truth in the essay, as I write it, is how the persona interprets it. Yet there are essays I've written a dozen times in various forms in order to approach my questions from as many possible doorways as I can, and until I find one that truly allows me into the house of my longing's end, I imagine I'll keep writing it.
When I teach Pam Houston's title piece from Cowboys Are Not My Weakness, I call it an essay. To me, it is.
My father raised me to appreciate all kinds of music, from Waylon Jennings and Elvis to classical and Eighties pop. But he and I share an understanding about certain songs, though we don't share what it is we know about the feelings contained in certain lyrics. I loved those songs at nine; I love them now. For Father's Day in 1992, I gave my father a mix tape entitled Our Favorites. Cliff Richard's "We Don't Talk Anymore" comes in at number one on that tape, and when it was released in 1979, my father was a grown man who I now know had some history to go with that song, though what connection could I have made at the age of nine when I was twirling to it in my baton class? Though the single was labeled a dance hit, I rotated my wrists and did toss-turnarounds thinking: This is sad. I could recognize the longing in that man's voice. Thus, I assume I must have been born with a distance within me and an ability to recognize the distance within others, though I don't write to close any of those emotional avenues; I write to wander through them.
Recently, I received an e-mail rejection from a nonfiction journal. Reason: "Your piece reads like fiction, and our readers would read it as such. We do not accept unsolicited fiction." I thought I had submitted to a creative nonfiction journal. And while the piece was indeed a personal essay, I had employed the third person "She" in order to examine my own actions from a few years back. Experimental, sure, but (1) I wanted to evoke some kind of distancing, my persona's refusal to claim her own actions' effect, and (2) I wasn't anticipating any discrimination for what the editors assumed was subversive genre swapping. These editors proclaimed what they represented as a protection of their readership. As if to say, we can't have our readers out there reading a piece in our journal as if it's fiction. Even if we tell them it's CNF, they'll read it as fiction. Thanks for submitting.
In my late thirties, I still listen to Bread, the Allman Brothers, Ambrosia, America, though the music is now imbued with my own memories: the lover who played Bob Seeger to wake me one morning, the guy who brought America on our road trips because it was "good conversation music," the jukeboxes on afternoons in my favorite bars, when I can play every Seventies selection without annoying a crowd. Yet something within me craves my own song, and something within me craves to sing the songs that those I love abandoned to a front room in Texas, never to be played again. And so I write for them. I write myself.
In Charles Blackstone's novel The Week You Weren't Here, Hunter Flanagan tells a female character that he's writing a "fictionalized personal narrative." As a personal essayist and one privy to the facts of Charles's undergrad days (University of Illinois at Chicago, writing center tutor, graduate school applicant who'd eventually move to Boulder), I asked my students, given this data, how far away we were from memoir? And on that summer afternoon on the porch, I directed the same question to Charles. At CU, we took a fiction workshop together, and each class period sitting next to him, I felt like a poser. I knew nothing about creating characters and plots from thin air. After all, my life had given me enough characters and plots to sort through as a writer. I knew nothing of writing this thing called fiction. It wouldn't be until I began teaching fiction in Introduction classes that I would discover ideas like literary versus literal and writing the stories that tell the truth you want to tell. Charles and I began asking each other about our respective genres, and I wondered if he saw mine the way I saw his: a murky mystery that I cannot get to on my own, like the little boy who watches the high school football games from the sidelines. He loves the game, but he's more enraptured with the mystique of the bigger boys who know what it feels like, what it smells like, to crouch down at the line of scrimmage. He watches the game; I read fiction.
Most of the writers in this anthology, unlike Charles and me, do write both, and they write both well. Others, however, are monogamous writers; they stick to stories or they write only essays. I wanted to understand how much genre-space there is between a scenario I created in an essay about my grandmother in order to add to her tragedy, her missed opportunities, and the lines in which Hunter Flanagan goes to the same school, does the same things, even thinks the way my friend does. I suspected Charles of cheating, maybe we both were. We knew we were onto something, and we knew we'd hit upon something that would take more time, more voices, to unravel.
When I was twenty-eight, I found myself on a train, headed to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to give a reading at a famous town bookstore. I'd published a novel about two months before and was now going through the rigors of promoting it. Publishing a book is, by most accounts, an extremely confusing, off-putting, uncomfortable, surreal sort of endeavor. So many obstacles leading up to this point, so many people pointing out just how unlikely you ever realizing your dream would be but then, pretty much by accident, serendipity, or bad luck, there you are on a train to Michigan to read before an audience of two or twenty.
As the train slogged through the cornfields, I thought about where I was, this published book and concomitant promotional tour, and in the strangeness of it all, was reminded of when I was first starting out, when I first began to write seriously. As much as we think we've eluded our pasts, they're always there, lurking in the background like a stray cat, or a conscience, aren't they?
Long before I was first drafting Hunter Flanagan's interior monologues—his Flanalogues—I was a precocious teenaged novelist. And, yes, it should be known that I spent little time during my teens writing short fiction—I wrote books. Most of them featured the same three characters (two of whom make their public debut in The Week You Weren't Here), and I recall one sequence I sketched out then. Trey, the dissolute in the triad, the dreamer, decides the only way to get on with his life is to run away from his past, confronting him literally in the Chicago neighborhood in which he grew up, the summer after his sophomore year of college on the East Coast. Trey was probably twenty at that point. First writing him, I was a high school junior, seventeen years old, and had never been to college. Sure, I'd known college, or thought I did—having been raised on the University of Chicago campus, in Hyde Park—from the restaurants and posters and the math-tutoring undergrads I occasionally interacted with when my eighth-grade algebra equations became rigorously parenthetical, but that was the extent of it. I'd never lived in a dorm, I'd never been away from home, come back, and tried to figure out how everything disparate and fragmented could magically cohere, if only for a summer. I certainly had no empirical evidence gathered on what it was like when everybody could come home, family dynamics restored, the natural order returned, and the rest. Even now, as a college graduate who has resided for several years in a different state, I wouldn't say I understand it any better than I did as a teenager.
And, most glaringly absent in my experience up to that point, I'd never, in any context, ridden a train. Then, I'd probably only been on the subway a handful of times. But I wrote this scene where Trey flees, gets on a train (a cross-country Amtrak), drinks at the bar, picks up a teenager, takes her back to his room, and has sex with her. Years later, when revising this scene for a chapter in my grad school master's thesis (hey, I still thought it was a good story), equipped with all the knowledge and acute awareness of realism that one can't help thinking about after years of ubiquitous reminders—workshop members jumping up to point out errors of logic and fact in fiction (and, curiously, usually only in those workshops and not the nonfiction ones) and the like from peers and friends ("You could never find someone drinking shots of scotch in Mexico"), I asked myself, how could I really write convincingly about a character on a train if I'd never been on one? I could put myself into the emotions okay, but was there actually a bar car? Did it matter? Would the story be any richer if I knew the "truth" about bar cars? If they didn't exist, was the answer to just give Trey a suitcase of beer? (I would never have thought of that at the time, having not had occasion to smuggle beer in luggage yet.)
These questions (issues) are, to my mind, at the heart of the debate over what constitutes fiction, what nonfiction, to what degree may the imagination be relied upon, and to what extent must we remain in thrall to the tired edict "Write what you know." I'd always figured I could get away with writing characters with experiences I didn't have firsthand knowledge of if I were writing what they knew. Trey knew the bar car existed, and, at the time, that seemed to be enough.
Still, though, I felt a certain measure of relief when I discovered my train actually had a bar car. I'd found myself restless in hour three of the seemingly interminable rail journey and went off in search of something to drink. Other passengers, maybe those who'd taken many trips on Amtrak, had already made their way behind the curtain for cookies and small cups of coffee and orange juice and bottles of soda and ice cream bars. The bartender, an older gentleman in full rail regalia, complete with boxy conductor hat, was busy with difficult customers in front of me, and the time allowed for an opportunity to familiarize myself with the menu. Yes, there were cocktails. There was beer. These things were somewhat outrageously priced, but still—trains did, in fact, serve booze. So Trey could have purchased a drink or two (suspending disbelief for the moment and allowing for the possibility that he wouldn't have been carded, or would have had the cash).
Fiction, like nonfiction, is really about the possibility of something. Often we're way too literal, want a story to do more things for us than it's supposed to. I've always stressed, when defining verisimilitude for students, that it's like life. Like. It's not life, but it's damn near close. Yes, we believe our characters are real and have lives of their own, that they're not just products of our imagination, just as ardently as essayists claim that their characters (including themselves) really do exist beyond the page. (I maintain that both sets of players do and don't exist in equal proportion.) I like Ernest Hemingway's bit of advice, which I recently came across moving some books, and couldn't believe I'd almost forgotten: Don't describe the world, make the world. Is this concept at odds with verisimilitude, with the tenets of realism? I don't think so. I think it dovetails nicely with the others. Maybe describing the world is to rely too heavily on what we all know too well. Maybe the like part of verisimilitude is the making: It's only like life because we haven't experienced it yet. Not that I'm advocating we should do everything we read in fiction just so that we can say the prose has transcended realism and has become real; if you must, please don't start with my coke-snorting, beer-drinking, ripped-jean sporting band of sophomores—you'll no doubt blame me for the injurious effects on your sleep, your psyche, your liver, and your wallet.
Also, I think people forget about how quote-unquote real life is a fiction. Many long hours after I'd begun my journey that early June morning, I'd reached Ann Arbor and I was sitting in the front seat of a very strange gypsyesque taxi. The first sign of trouble was that there were two drivers in the car. (One sat in the back and I rode in the front.) The second sign was, after I'd explained I was in town for the night to do a book reading (and withdrew my reading copy of the novel to substantiate this claim), that the front-seat driver within a matter of moments declared himself my regional tour manager and began to plan my evening itinerary, with little regard for what I wanted to do. He started working out a schedule, asking me a litany of questions I had no strength or presence of mind to answer: "What do you want to eat tonight?" "I don't know... I'll probably just pick something up—" "Well, what do you like? Japanese? Italian?" "Those sound fine, but, to be honest, I don't usually eat before I read. I like to have a drink and—" "Well, if I pick you up at seven, that would give you forty-five minutes to eat. Do you think that's long enough? And what time is your train in the morning? It takes twenty minutes to get from your hotel to the station and you should allow at least a half hour to check in and—" I was at a loss. I kept looking behind me for some kind of assistance or at least empathy from the silent trainee in the backseat. Were all guests this guy picked up shown such cloying hospitality? Was there a meter in the cab? Was I going to be abducted? What street were we on? Where was this Motel 6? Eventually, we did reach the hotel. I thanked the drivers profusely, overtipped, and promised that I would give them a call in a few hours. After I unpacked and got dressed for the reading, I called the front desk and asked them for the number of the local Yellow Cab company. When a sane driver came to pick me up, I relaxed in the backseat, watched the digits of the meter begin to scroll, breathed in the air-conditioning, and asked how long the driver thought I should allow to get to the station in the morning. "There's usually traffic," he said. "So at least a half hour." To get two, two and a half miles in Ann Arbor, Michigan? In the morning, I ended up at the station a good hour and a half before the train departed. The traffic was nonexistent and Amtraks were notorious for being at least an hour late in departing. So maybe all the cab drivers were a little crazy, or maybe they weren't, but the reading went well, and I had the beginnings of an interesting story to use at a later date. I wasn't sure how meaningful this episode would be for my fiction, though I certainly didn't rule anything out. Maybe it was something I could use as an anecdote for a future book tour. When something went wrong, when a microphone wasn't ready or there wasn't ample stock or even pens to sign arms and T-shirts and children, I could tell the story of when in Ann Arbor, I briefly feared for my life in the front seat of a taxi. Or maybe I'd just know better for the future. Any way I'd spin it, I always ended up better off with what I'd had—not just in terms of experience but also in terms of reflection, projection, imagination. And trust me, as I don't doubt you'll quickly realize once you begin reading this anthology, to be good, to be really good, you need just about everything you can get.
This anthology raises some interesting questions about experimental fiction—really about any fiction, literature, art of any kind, anything we create that makes people think and feel and react and inspires discussion. A painting is a glimpse, a fragment, a story, but not the whole story, and neither is prose. To put it simply, in writing fiction (and creative nonfiction), anytime you, as writer, make a choice to have a character do something or have something or want something (choices ranging from wanting a new pair of shoes to having a specific need to tell a story using a certain narrative device, like, say, an epistolary novel), there are always going to be some things that you're able to explore through the writing that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to, and, of course, there are going to be certain things that your choices will necessarily exclude.
This is not a bad thing. Another good question we should consider is the all-time favorite—who is the writer writing the essay or story for? For whom does anybody writing any sort of narrative write that narrative? Likely the answer we'd hear from the writers in this collection would be "I wrote this for people who read these sorts of narratives, people that get this, and the hell with everyone else," and I think that's a good answer. One piece of writing, or one novel, or one memoir, or one stage play, is not for everyone. Once writers let go of trying to please every imaginable reader, they discover there is actually more freedom for them linguistically, artistically, not less, and they're freed from having to consider the implications of certain abstract concepts that, again, less informed readers like to grab up and champion, like say the generic and uncontextualized sense of "love" or "understanding." Sophisticated readers, or sophisticated livers of life, aren't that impressed by oversimplification, and fortunately narrative resists being reduced. Good narrative, anyway.
I think that whether the story is putatively "fiction" or "creative nonfiction," whatever those terms actually mean, the same thing is going on in both worlds. We're telling a story, letting the characters-slash-narratized "real" people tell their stories. That's the most important thing we can do. That's the only thing we can do. When writers stop seeing the world through their characters' eyes, stop experiencing events as the character would experience them, and start answering to external exigencies, their writing ceases to be consequent. Writers have agendas. Readers have agendas. I don't give a shit about either. Because it's when we become sixteen again, and write the hell out of an idea, paying little attention to form and implication and social issue and who's holding the latest pen of contention, that the writing—fiction and nonfiction alike—comes alive, really starts to happen, and runs the risk of actually meaning something to readers and to the world. The unfortunate part is that writers can't make this happen. Sure, we're at the reins of the carriage, but we're just the anonymous drivers. As Cris Mazza would say, "I shouldn't see the author's hand" when reading prose. If something isn't important to the character, or, for the CNF fans, narrator (an entity, in my mind, as separate as the former from the writer), why should it be significant to the author? If the author is concerned with things the characters aren't, we have an excellent claim for a heavy-handedness charge. Flannery O'Connor said it best: "You can write anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much." This is true. The story has to be able to justify choices. In The Week You Weren't Here, I make some pretty strong choices, and those choices have really resonated with some readers. And have really pissed off others. I think what I did, how I wrote the book, what I included, what I excluded were all very much part of the story itself (as any good narrative structure should be). I wanted the narrative to interact with the story, be the story, not just be a means for conveying it. And I'm also interested in really messed up characters. Some people get this. But these are not issues particular to fiction. Creative nonfiction has to deal with them all as well, even if essayists don't always want to admit it.
And the reason for that is simple: as humans, we all think (and fallaciously, I might add) our thought processes are flawless. Good thing we don't go through life alone. It takes other people, other perspectives, or other situations, obstacles, and the rest to make us realize that we are actually terribly flawed, and our flawed logic is what gets us into trouble. And that's how we are able to have interesting, relevant narratives. So instead of creating more trouble for each other by claiming there are profound differences between fiction and creative nonfiction, let's just shut up and write. (Or, since we're sitting here with books open, read what the contributors have written.) Trust me. We'll all be better off that way.