Beware the Abyss

Beware the Abyss
Written for my Creative Nonfiction Class – Fall 2011
by Thomas Jay Rush

I am standing on the brink of an abyss. I am looking out over a cliff into a beautiful and terrifying landscape. I’m concerned that if I take an initial step into that country I may not return. I have a family who needs me. So, in this essay, I may appear tentative – as if I’m dipping my toe in the water – and I am. But I think it’s the safest way to proceed.
I’ve struggled for two weeks to come up with a topic for this paper. This is my fifth draft. In my first draft, I equated David Foster Wallace’s work to the beef in a stew that has been simmering in my mind for months. A podcast on literary criticism (Fry 2009) played the role of the onions in that stew.

In another draft, I claimed I was of two minds about Wallace – one mind, a twelve year old boy, intimidated by his intellect and the depth of his writing, and the other mind, a fifty-two year old man who has been liberated by the free abandon Wallace exhibits in his work. That fifty-two year old man thought: if David Foster Wallace can do it, I can do it. In that draft of my essay, there was an apocryphal battle between those two voices. The twelve-year-old won.

In another draft, using way too many footnotes, I tried to mimic the “second voice” Wallace refers to in a famous taped interview with Charlie Rose (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I’ve been taught that a writer should avoid cliché. It turns out, using footnotes in an essay about David Foster Wallace is an extreme example of the cliché. Trying to be original, I changed that draft to use an extended forward, which I noticed Wallace had not used. I discovered the reason why he hadn’t – because it’s a bad idea. That draft didn’t work either.

All of those previous drafts of my essay have fallen by the wayside (cliché). They now reside deep inside a folder called “~/Documents/Wayside/Incomplete David Foster Wallace Essays” (cliché defeating humorous aside).

The abyss I referred to earlier is the abyss of David Foster Wallace criticism. I found a website on the Internet called Howling Fantods (Maniatis n.d.). It was built and is maintained by Nick Maniatis, a high-school English teacher in Australia. The site is recognized as “the pre-eminent David Foster Wallace website.” (Crawford n.d.) The community of scholars concerned with David Foster Wallace uses the site as a centralized resource for scholarship on Wallace.

If the worldwide web can be said to be a fabric then this website is definitely a thread. And pulling this thread unravels not just an adult XL sized sweater (a beautiful sweater of many colors, to be sure) but an entire clothing factory of David Foster Wallace criticism. Not just a clothing factory – an entire landscape zoned for heavy industrial.

One particular essay linked from this site is called “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). This article summarizes the state of David Foster Wallace criticism as of 2010. There were two particular passages in that essay that stuck me as particularly relevant.

The first passage I will discuss in detail below. This passage perfectly describes, I think, what David Foster Wallace was trying to do in his work. The passage is very “dense”, by which I mean that it is written with the supposition that the reader is familiar with the ideas of literary criticism. I am going to attempt to “unpack” that dense passage.
In the second passage, Kelly lists a series of writers and philosophers he believes would be helpful in understanding Wallace’s work: George Berkeley, Gilles Deleuze, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, William James, Fredric Jameson, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, Gilbert Ryle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Kelly 2010).

Twelve-year old boy: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of any of these writers.
Fifty-two-year old man: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of three-quarters of these writers.

I take Kelly’s suggestion seriously. I believe him when he says that to understand Wallace’s work one must first understand these writers. Also, I want to understand exactly what that dense passage means. For this reason, I am going to do two things with the remainder of this essay.
First, I will write a brief sketch on each of the writers mentioned in the above list. These are not intended to be authoritative sketches. I am only making this list as a sort of road map, for a time when I might revisit this place. Also, I think these sketches will serve as an exercise in summarizing the lives and work of these writers (as we did in class). As I enter into this landscape that so fascinates and frightens me I need a road map. These sketches will serve as the beginnings of that map.

In the second part of this essay, I will excerpt an extended passage from Kelly’s article and try to explain what I think the passage means. I will “unpack” the text, as Wallace might say (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I think the passage perfectly summarizes what Wallace was trying to do. The passage refers implicitly to work of many of the writers mentioned in the sketches. This is another justification for creating these sketches.

One of the ingredients in the stew from the first draft of my essay, I called it onions, was a podcast I’ve been listening to by Dr. Paul Fry (Fry 2009) from Yale University called “Introduction to Theory of Literature”. The podcast is a series of 26 one-hour long lectures on the history of literary criticism: from the study of hermeneutics or literary interpretation, to gender and identity studies. I started listening to these lectures before having read David Foster Wallace. Each lecture is devoted to an important development in the history of literary criticism – this translates to a discussion on the work of one writer. Many of who, coincidentally, are on the above list. In these lectures I first heard of Derrida, and Gadamer and Wittenberg. I listened to these lectures closely – I grocked very little. Putting these sketches together will help to reinforce what I learned in those podcasts.
Finally, I truly believe that it is impossible, at this stage in my understanding of Wallace’s work, for me to say anything interesting or original about him as a writer. I quite simply do not feel qualified (twelve-year-old boy speaking).

In fine David Foster Wallace style, then, and drawing heavily from Dr. Paul Fry’s lectures, (please be aware that at this point I am now officially “in over my head” and the abyss that I thought I was looking over has suddenly morphed into the edge of a deep swimming pool, and I’m diving in without swimmies), I now present:


Note: Most of this information is from a combination of Wikipedia (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia n.d.), Stanford Online Dictionary of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.), and Dr. Fry’s lectures (Fry 2009).

George Berkeley
b. 1685 d. 1753
Also called Bishop Berkley, George Berkley, was an Irish philosopher who lived and worked between 1685 and 1753. He was a proponent of a theory called immaterialism. Which very broadly contends that reality consists of no physical objects. That everything is either “spirit” or “idea,” and that spirit perceives idea and idea is perceived by spirit. His theory may be seen as a reaction to materialism, which was prevalent at the time.

William James
b. 1842 d. 1910
The brother of novelist Henry James, William James studied at the Lawrence Science School at Harvard and the Harvard Medical School. He wrote many influential works of philosophy and influenced many later generations of thinkers including Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
b. 1889 d. 1951
A professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 to 1947, Wittgenstein apparently published very few things while he was alive (a book review, a children’s dictionary, one article and a 75 page book). A book published two years after he died, Philosophical Investigations, was named in 1999 as the most important book in 20th century philosophy.

To poorly summarize my understanding (which is poorly understood to begin with) Wittgenstein believed that most philosophical questions could be made moot if one refused to allow the discussion to leave the “rough ground” of everyday language.

Quoting un-cited text from Wikipedia: He argues philosophical problems are bewitchments that arise from philosophers’ misguided attempts to consider the meaning of words independently of their context, usage, and grammar.

Martin Heidegger
b. 1889 d. 1976
Heidegger says: “In an interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself [“the text” in the words of Dr. Fry], or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being [a challenge to the authority of the author as to interpretation].”

Gilbert Ryle
b. 1900 d. 1976
Born in Brighton, England, Ryle lived and worked his entire life in England. From 1935-1945 he taught and wrote at Cambridge. His theories were along the lines of Wittgenstein, in that he thought of philosophical ideas as something distinct from everyday experience.

A regular person knows experience in the same way a farmer might know the land, in the sense that he toils with it every day. A philosopher knows experience more in the way a mapmaker knows a landscape.

He is one of the “ordinary language philosophers” who believe that some of the difficulties of philosophical questions lie in the loss of being in touch with everyday language.

His most famous book, published in 1949, was called The Concept of Mind.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
b. 1900 d. 2002
Born in Germany in 1900, Hans Gadamer lived to the age of 102. He died in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied under and was influenced by Martin Heidegger. His most important book, published in 1960, was called Truth and Method, in which he argued that people approach the reading of a text with preconceived ideas. As soon as a reader reads one part of a text he forms conclusions on the remainder of the text. He carries this expectation forward as he encounters further parts of the text. Gadamer called this back and forth of expectation and encounter the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer argued that a reader is constantly trying to “merge” his understanding of what the writer is saying with his own prior knowledge. He claimed he was not trying to explain how people “aught to” read a text but how people actually do read a text.

From Gadamer: The reader projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges…because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.

Paul Ricoeur
b. 1913 d. 2005
As an indication of just how deep this swimming pool is I searched on Google for this writer and found a link to a website called the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.). There are 2,500 articles listed in their table of contents about every possible philosophical question. I retreated fairly quickly from this website.

Paul Ricoeur was a prominent 20th century philosopher. For more information please see the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Paul de Man
b. 1919 d. 1983
Professor Fry, in his lecture on the work of Paul de Man, with whom he was apparently a contemporary and colleague, says, “…what we…write in our papers, is grounded in theoretical premises which, if we don’t come to terms with them, we will simply naively reproduce…so it is as crucial…to understand theory” (Fry 2009).

This sentiment, that if we don’t understand the ideas upon which we are basing what we write we are simply naively reproducing other people’s work, is exactly the reason why I didn’t feel qualified to allow myself to enter into the land of serious David Foster Wallace criticism and chose instead to write these simple sketches.

Gilles Deleuze
b. 1925 d. 1995
An interesting website, by an artist called Mark Ngui, shows drawings made to try to elucidate the ideas contained in the first two chapters of Deleuze’s book: A Thousand Plateaus. I reproduce one small image from that website here (Ngui n.d.), as another indication (as if it’s needed) of the depth of the DFW swimming pool:

Jacques Derrida
b. 1930 d. 2004
This important writer published over 40 books on diverse topics. He taught at the University of California, Irvine but also held positions at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking of a famous lecture Jacques Derrida gave at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Professor Fry says “this extraordinary event in the imaginations of people thinking about theory…[brought]…about a…revolution from the preoccupation we had in the mid-sixties with structuralism to the subsequent preoccupation…with deconstruction. (Fry 2009)”

Derrida subsequently published another important essay called “Différance,” which played an important role in the history of literary criticism as well. A very simple description of the ideas in this paper is that all things are defined only in terms of being different from other things, that without being able to specify what a thing is in relation to other things it is not possible to say anything about that thing.

William Wimsatt
b. 1907 d. 1975
Wimsatt was a professor of English at Yale University from 1939 until his death in 1975, 36 years later. He published many papers on literary criticism. One important paper was called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) which was published in The Sewanee Review in 1946.

In that paper, Wimsatt argued, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art!” [My exclamation point]

He also said, later in that article, in what I call his famous twelfth footnote : “the history of words after [his italics] a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant…should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.”

Professor Fry spent a long time on this writer in his lecture. I found the idea of the Intention Fallacy interesting. Wallace mentions the intentional fallacy in his essay “Big Red Son.”

Richard Rorty
b. 1931 d. 2007
A philosopher and writer who taught at Princeton, the University of Virginia and Stanford University, Rorty developed ideas called neopragmatism. His work was based, in part, on the works of Derrida and Heidegger. William James was apparently a pragmatist, so Rorty’s ideas are an incorporation and expansion of some of the pragmatist ideas.

Wikipedia claims that the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy calls Rorty’s work a “postmodern version of pragmatism.”

Fredric Jameson
b. 1934 d. present
Born in 1934, Jameson was an American literary critic. His most famous work was titled Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1991.

Martha Nussbaum
b. 1947 d. present
A teacher at Harvard and Brown Universities, Martha Nussbaum now teaches philosophy, law, and divinity at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum has “a concern for nut-and-bolts utility” (Boynton n.d.). Which means she wants her philosophies to have a practical effect on the world. She has studied women’s poverty in India. Through her teaching of law she hopes to have a lasting effect on society. She was born and raised in the privileged world of Bryn Mawr, PA and attended the Baldwin School.

Nussbaum was the winner of many awards including being named one of the world’s top 100 intellectuals (how can they possibly tell?) by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In the remainder of this essay I will discuss a passage taken from “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). Hopefully, some of the ideas in this passage may be better understood given the above sketches.
The article is a summary of David Foster Wallace scholarship. Studies in David Foster Wallace have experienced a huge upsurge since his death, in 2008, by suicide. The article discusses the fact that Wallace was one of the early “internet age” writers. It discusses how Wallace’s fan base actually played an important role in the furtherance of studies about his work. One amateur fan actually went to Amherst College Library and discovered an important early draft of a Wallace short story from the time he was a student. The article then goes on to say:

What became known as “literary theory,” and eventually simply “theory” (see Culler), initially arose as a method of reading “against the grain,” with the aim of exploring a text’s unconscious (whether political, psychological, gendered etc.).

In other words literary critics, at the beginning of the discipline, were trying to understand what the writer was saying by focusing on the actual text. Trying to determine what was hidden in the text’s unconscious. The theories of Sigmund Freud came into play here and some literary critics hung their work on the ideas of Freud’s id, ego, and superego (Fry 2009). One critic, Wimsatt, claimed, in a paper called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) that it was not only not possible but not desirable to try to understand the original intention of the author of the piece. He claimed that once a literary artifact is “born” it is no longer the province of the author to determine what it means. He contended that everything a critic needs to make an interpretation is in the text (Fry 2009).

Kelly goes on to say:

But as theory has moved from a position of peripheral challenge to one of conventional centrality in academic discourse, its relation to texts has become newly problematic…

In other words, as literary theory has gained relevancy and become more broadly disseminated, it has encountered new problems, those problems arising…
…both because the epistemological claims of high theory have come under fire from a variety of sources…

…that fire coming from not only other literary critics but increasingly from the authors whose authority is being challenged. He continues…
…and because literary texts have begun to engage critically with their own relation to theoretical formulations [italics mine].

This, I think, is the crux of what David Foster Wallace was doing. He was “engaging critically…[with]…theoretical formulations.” Kelly goes on to say:
Literary critics…have explored this problem in general…but Wallace critics have found it easier to negotiate because of the assumption of genius and encyclopedic knowledge attached to their object of study.

In other words, it is assumed that Wallace was both familiar with and was incorporating in his writing the theories of the literary critics. He understood the game the critics were playing, and he wrote his work not only for the regular reader but also in response to what the critics and literary theorists were saying. And this causes new difficulties for the theorist. The theorist’s object of study is squirming under the microscope.

Further in the piece Kelly says:

Whereas the rise of theory was initially viewed as the conclusive destruction of intention [Kelly is referring to Wimsatt here (Wimsatt Jr 1946)], …here intention is birthed again to co-exist with theory, resulting in fresh forms of critical engagement.

This is why Wallace is an important writer; some have called him the most important writer of his generation. I don’t think Wallace initiated this “rebirth” of intention (based on my limited understanding, the early practitioners of post-modernism may have initiated these “fresh forms of critical engagement,” but Wallace certainly added to it).

Further in the article, Kelly says:

When theory was at its zenith in the academy, what a writer thought he or she was doing in their fiction was not a decisive factor for critics; but when major writers become willing to engage the discourses of theory itself [my italics] – to speak the language of the critic, and challenge that language on its own turf – it is impossible not to take notice.

Wallace was “engaging in the discourse of theory itself.” He was “challenging” the critics on their own terms. The article quotes Wallace as saying:
The contemporary artist can simply no longer afford to regard the work of [literary critics]…as divorced from his own concerns.”

I think Wallace had read all of the theory. I think he had understood all of the theory. I think he incorporated it into his work.
In short, I think he grocked it (see fn 1).

During the last few months I’ve been reading the work of a man named John Barth. (He was the “celery” in the stew.) John Barth had a long career teaching writing at Penn State University, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University. He wrote an important collection of post-modern short stories called “Lost in the Funhouse.” In one essay called “It’s a Short Story” (Barth 1992), Barth says that early in his career, while he was being taught writing at Johns Hopkins, he was having difficulty trying to meet the expectations of his teachers. He describes a time when he finally realized that he could just go off on his own. That he could go off in his own direction. That he could dive into the swimming pool without his swimmies (my words not his). I really loved this idea, this sense of freedom. The writing of David Foster Wallace gives me that same feeling.

This sense of freedom is what has allowed this fifty-two year old man to finally come to the end if this convoluted and probably confusing essay. 


From: Thomas Jay Rush
Subject: End of Year Paper
Date: December 12, 2011 9:50PM EST
To: Anne Kaier

This email is officially part of the paper I handed in earlier this evening. I believe one of the things that David Foster Wallace was trying to do with his many footnotes and asides was to make certain that he was fully communicating everything he needed to say. This is why he goes into such excruciating detail (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I totally understand this. I always feel that I’ve left a million things unsaid in my writing.
I started writing one version of my paper wherein I included tons of footnotes but I quickly realized that writing a paper on David Foster Wallace and using footnotes was pure cliché, so I abandoned that paper. I then tried to invent a new method to do the same thing, something that Wallace hadn’t already done. I struck upon the idea of using a “foreword” but after a short time I discovered why David Foster Wallace had not used a foreword in any of his essays – because it’s a stupid idea. So I abandoned that draft as well.

I’m sending this email because this is the method I’ve hit upon to speak with what Wallace called a “second voice.” But now that I’ve come to actually write the email I find I don’t have very much further to say.

So I’ll just say this: Thanks for the fine class. I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I look forward to taking further classes with you in the future. Have a nice holiday. 

Works Cited

Barth, John. “It’s a Short Story.” The Second International Conference on the Short Story – Proceedings (University of Iowa), June 1992.
Crawford, Ashley. “David Foster Wallace: Pale Kingdoms.” 21C Magazine. (accessed December 8, 2011).
Fry, Dr. Paul H. Introduction to Theory of Literature. Podcast. Yale University. New Haven, CT, Spring 2009.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Trade, 1961.
Kelly, Adam. “David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.” Issue 2. Irish Journal of American Studies. Summer 2010. (accessed December 6, 2011).
Maniatis, Nick. Edited by Nick Maniatis. (accessed December 6, 2011).
Ngui, Mark. Drawings of Thousand Plateaus. /plateaus/index.shtml (accessed December 12, 2012).
Wallace, David Foster, interview by Charlie Rose. An Interview with David Foster Wallace. New York, New York, (March 27, 1997).
—. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2007.
—. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993).
Who Needs Philosophy?: A profile of Martha Nussbaum. articleDisplay.php?article_id=55 (accessed December 10, 2011).
Wimsatt Jr, M. C. Beardsley and W. K. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review (Johns Hopkins University Press) 54, no. 3 (July 1946).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Metaphysics Research Lab , Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. (accessed 12 5, 2011).

Rediscovering Nonfiction

Rediscovering Nonfiction
Written for my Creative Nonfiction Class – Fall 2011
by Thomas Jay Rush

I was walking north on 22nd Street near the Philadelphia Art Museum a couple of weeks ago. As I strolled, angrily listening to a podcast, I noticed a homeless man sitting on a stoop. Unconsciously, I inched toward the outer edge of the sidewalk.

As I passed he said, “How ‘ya doin?”

I continued walking.

He said, “May I ask you a question?” Polite like that.

This made me angrier than I already was. I went back to my car and drove home.

Twenty minutes earlier, I walked away from the Occupy Wall Street protest at Dilworth Plaza where I had gone to interview people. Not because I was interested in their protest, but because I wanted to practice the art of interviewing. I left without speaking to a single person.

I had only to have asked that strange man, dressed like a Luftwaffe officer, wearing a blond wig and German army fatigues: “May I ask you a question?” What was so difficult about that?

In this paper, I propose to tell the story of what prompted me to go down to City Hall that day. Four weeks earlier, I would not have gone. Four weeks earlier, I would have known the outcome of my excursion before getting on the Expressway. I would have known I would leave without asking a single question. Most likely, I would have written a piece about Occupy Wall Street anyway, but it would have been fiction. My intention on this particular day was write a piece of nonfiction. But I walked away empty handed and upset with myself.

When I was eighteen years old, I read a book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It was required reading for my freshmen class at college; we were to write an essay about the book for our final project.

Prior to reading that book, I had read only five books in my life, all fiction. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a book, when I was twelve, called The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (great book). I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with the passion only a first-year college student can sustain. Re-reading it, outlining it, highlighting it, I practically tore the book limb from limb. I could not put it down. I have been calling it my favorite book for thirty years. Before the start of this semester at Rosemont, it was one of the few nonfiction books I had read.
Around the same time I devoured Dillard’s book, I also started writing short narrative essays and poetry. I tried to emulate Ms. Dillard in my writing. I adored the way she related personal events, so seamlessly integrating them into the larger point she was making about being human. I marveled at how she incorporated things she had read into her work, how she wove essays that contained no unnecessary threads. My efforts to mimic her fell well short.

I was young and stupid back then. Instead of trying to figure out what she was doing, I walked away. I stagnated in my own insular brand of the personal essay and I turned to reading fiction. Until I read John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens a couple of weeks ago, my love for Tinker Creek had all but disappeared. Like Rick Parry [sic], the contender for the Republican nomination, my love for nonfiction briefly blossomed, exploding on the scene to dominate the attention, only to recede as quickly as it appeared.

I read John McPhee’s book, The Pine Barrens, before the start of the semester. The following week I read Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Following that, I read Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. After a steady thirty-year diet of fiction, I filled myself with three nonfiction books in two weeks; and relished every word.

From the first page of McPhee’s book, I noticed something hovering over the writing. Unlike fiction, I noticed a feeling that what I was reading was true. It is a simple thing to say—of course, it was true, it was nonfiction—but this was a new feeling to me.

On page four McPhee says, “In parts of New Jersey there are over forty thousand people per square mile…in the central area of the Pine Barrens there are only fifteen people per square mile.” (McPhee, 4). When I read that I thought, “Wow. An honest-to-goodness fact.”

Up until that time, I was under the misapprehension that dry, dusty facts took away from the enjoyment of a book. The fact is McPhee’s book was anything but boring. In the first three pages, he mentions the geography, history, and even linguistic history of the Pine Barrens. He introduces us to the town of Hog Wallow (what a great name) and one of its residents, Fredrick Chambers Brown, when he writes, “Some [people] describe it [Hog Wallow], without any apparent intention to be clever, as a suburb of Jenkins…One resident of Hog Wallow is Fredrick Chambers Brown. I met him one summer morning when I stopped at his house to ask for water.” (McPhee, 7).

I wrote in the margin beside this passage, “I’m in love with this writer.” The next hundred and fifty pages made me a fan of John McPhee. I appreciated the way, like Dillard, he was able to impart so many facts and yet keep me interested. The natural history, the social history, the flora and fauna, the people were all fascinating. I started thinking I could write a book like this.

The only trouble was, as I was conjuring a book about where I grew up, a place just as interesting as the Pine Barrens, there was a nagging worry, revealed in the quote above, haunting me.

John McPhee stopped at someone’s house and asked for a drink of water.

I tried to ignore this detail, but it kept returning and ruining my daydream. Going back over my notes in the margins, I see numerous references to him meeting new people. At one point I wrote, “He’s interviewing the entire population of New Jersey.”

I am afraid of interviewing people. There. I said it. Better to stay silent and allow people to think your stupid….

I was not ready to deal with my fear. As people do, I chose to ignore it. I finished the book and moved on the next book on my reading list: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I really enjoyed Skloot’s book. The prologue itself engaged me enough to carry me through to the end, if only to find out by whom she was pushed up against a wall. As she writes:

I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decade-long adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of [it]…. I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall…and…eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism (Skloot, 6).

If I had ever thought that nonfiction writing was boring (and I did) this prologue removed that misconception from my mind. The use of the words “adventure” and “cast of characters” are perfect. It sounds like an old Hollywood movie trailer. “The adventure!” (Splashed across the screen in red letters from lower left to upper right.) “A cast of thousands! Don’t miss the latest blockbuster from Cecil B. DeSkloot.”

I loved it.

Like McPhee’s book, when I first started reading this book, I detected that same “pall” hanging over the narrative. I call it a “pall” because it felt like something dragging on the narrative, something holding back the prose. I think this “pall” was my own internal thoughts questioning how the writer could have possibly known what she was reporting. For example, on the first page of the first chapter, Skloot writes, recounting a conversation of Henrietta Lacks, “ ‘I got a knot on my womb,’ she told the receptionist. ‘The doctor need to have a look.’ ” (Skloot, 13). I wondered how Skloot could have possibly known what Lacks said to the receptionist.

I suppose she may have interviewed the receptionist and that this is a direct quote, but in any case my attention was distracted. Even if Skloot had interviewed the receptionist, how could the receptionist have remembered an anonymous visitor from thirty years earlier? There must have been hundreds of people passing by that reception desk every day.

I was in the process, for the first time in my life, really, of learning what nonfiction was. What were the rules of this game? What does it mean to say nonfiction is truth? How true is true?

While I was reading Skloot’s book, I was scouring the Internet for information on creative nonfiction. I bought five books about creative nonfiction (see Works Sited); I found a number of online literary journals devoted almost exclusively to creative nonfiction. (One of them called Creative Nonfiction, of all things.) I read numerous articles by Creative Nonfiction’s editor, Lee Gutkind. (Gutkind 2008). I also read many articles on an online journal called Shadowbox and another called Etude.

For some reason, the quarterly On Craft essay on the Etude website, written by the journal’s founder, Lauren Kessler, captivated me. Four times a year Ms. Kessler writes an essay on the craft of narrative or creative nonfiction. (I find it interesting that people practicing the field don’t agree on what to call this endeavor. Is it called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction? They can’t seem to make up their mind.)

I’m a software developer. I wrote a very simple piece of software that downloaded all thirty-five issues of the On Craft essay and stuffed them into a Word document. I did this so I could read them all together in a bunch, but also because it would allow me to summarize them. I was hoping to create a list of the issues a creative nonfiction writer might encounter while doing his or her work.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last two years studying fiction, so I’m familiar with the ideas of characterization, setting, plot, suspense, pacing, etc. I was interested in making a list of things a creative nonfiction writer would have to know about.

Over the years certain recurring themes emerged from Ms. Kessler’s essays:

  1. Truth is paramount, but craft is equally important. The “nonfiction” and the “creative” parts of the name of the genre carry equal weight.
  2. Because one is writing truth, one will encounter ethical questions that do not exist in fiction. What parts of the story should the writer exclude to protect the privacy of the subject? What parts of the story must the writer include? Will certain facts revealed in the piece hurt someone? To whom does the writer owe his/her allegiance: the subject of the story, the truth, or the reader? These issues can get very murky.
  3. Memory is faulty. Two people may remember the same event in different ways. Who is to say what really happened? How can the writer of the piece possibly choose? Should the writer make the choice or present both versions and allow the reader to choose?
  4. Details are important, particularly when characterizing people. When writing fiction one may invent any detail one needs – for example the name “Snidely Whiplash” for an evil character. When writing nonfiction the writer may not invent. But he may choose details. Tom Wolfe called these “value-revealing” details. Kessler says, “If [a man] is bald because he shaves his head, then his baldness is a value-revealing detail…If he’s bald and he undergoes a $10,000 hair implant operation, this is also a value-revealing detail.” (Etude Magazine, Autumn 2002). Ethical questions appear here as well. Which details should be ignored? Which ones includes? What exactly is “truth” if the writer decides on the details?
  5. Frequently in these essays (they span a period of about ten year) the issue of scandal arises. Every few years a supposed nonfiction book is exposed as fiction. The book by James Fry, called A Million Little Pieces, is a famous example. Marketed as a nonfiction book, when it was learned that large parts of it were untrue, there was a huge kerfuffle. Wikipedia now calls this book a “semi-fictional” memoir (whatever that is). Kessler is frequently concerned about how easy it is to slip back and forth over the line of fiction, and warns practitioners to be careful.
  6. Sourcing—that is keeping track of every particular piece of information—is hugely important. On what date did the writer meet someone? Where did they meet? What page, in what book, does a particular quote come from? These sorts of technical issues are important. Without them the piece loses its authority, and the reader’s trust.
  7. Finally, (and this is an issue I tried to ignore), interviewing skill is a prerequisite for writing nonfiction. Ms. Kessler constantly discusses the art of interviewing. She annoyingly insists on her opinion that the writer must learn to interview. The writer must learn to insinuate herself into the lives of her subjects. Metaphorically I stuck my fingers in my ears.

Near the end of Rebecca Skloot’s book is a page titled “Acknowledgments.” (Skloot, 337). They go on for ten pages. There are hundreds of people on that list. To be completely honest, this list of acknowledgments is the single thing that stands out for me from this book. Just as when I was reading McPhee’s book, my internal voice was saying, “I can write this…” and my internal non-voice (or whatever we call that part of ourselves that knows the truth but refuses to speak) was saying, “…but I’m afraid.”

I said earlier that I was shy. I said I was afraid of interviewing people, but I was choosing to ignore this small “value-revealing” detail. Here it was then—staring me in the face—I was going to have to get over my fear of interview people; I was going to have to involve other people in my projects.

So. What did I do?

I ignored it.

I went on daydreaming about writing the next great creative nonfiction book. Worrying much more, to be honest, about the possibility of making stuff up and being exposed, embarrassing my family and causing a scandal, than learning how to interview. Besides, I told myself, I am an artist, and if I want to invent a new sub-genre of creative nonfiction that excludes interviews then that is what I will do. Who will stop me? I moved on to the next book in the reading list, Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.

I am running out of space, so, without going into detail I will just say I enjoyed Seabiscuit. As Dr. Kaier pointed out in class, Hillenbrand plays no part whatsoever in the story of Seabiscuit, and yet it was a very enjoyable and engaging story.

Similar to Skloot’s book, where the acknowledgments stood out as the most striking aspect, a certain passage stood out for me from this book. On an un-numbered page near the end of the book (Hillenbrand, Reader’s Guide), a writer named William Nack interviews (arrrhgg) Hillenbrand about her writing process. In the interview, Nack reveals that Hillenbrand completed large parts of this book while in bed. Apparently, she suffers from a disease called Chronic Fatigue. If she exerts herself too strenuously she gets dizzy. She worked, with her papers propped up on books, from her bed. She conducted interviews over the phone and used inter-library loans to have materials delivered to her house.

Just like that, all my bull$hit about not interviewing people disappeared. How could I possibly maintain the excuse “I’m too shy” in the face of Hillenbrand in her bed? Her experience expunged that excuse from my life as quickly as Howard Dean’s cackle, the night he won Iowa in 2004, expunged him from the Democratic primary race.

The next morning, I drove to downtown Philadelphia and parked my car near the Franklin Institute. God damn it. I was going to interview people. I strode confidently down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, past the Four Seasons Hotel, past Love Park with that beautiful towering masterpiece of a city hall staring me in the face. I had my iPhone with its voice memo app opened and ready. I would deliver a political bombshell: “Those protestors have no idea what they’re doing.” This would catapult my career as a political reporter. I would expose the dirty underbelly of Occupy Wall Street.

When I got to Dilworth Plaza, I milled around, walking on the outskirts of the encampment. Getting the lay of the land. I stood for a long time looking at a strange man dressed in a Nazi Luftwaffe uniform. He was wearing a cheap looking blond wig that stuck out awkwardly from his SS hat. He wore an olive-drab German army coat and grey flannel pants. He was actually spinning on his heel (of what I later came to understand were his jackboots). Two hated rival amateur reporters stuck iPhones in his face while I stood outside the circle and watched.

“Hey buddy, can I ask you a question?”

That is all I would have had to say. What was so hard about that? Instead, I walked away upset with myself. I walked down Chestnut Street until I reached 22nd, then north on 22nd where I encountered that homeless fellow. I should go back and thank him. He knew. Like McPhee, and Skloot, and Hillenbrand, and especially Dillard. He knew. All you have to do, if you want to get what you want, is ask.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1979.
McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Etude Magazine. On Craft Essays. Edited by Lauren Kessler. (accessed Oct. 2011).
Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Edited by Lee Gutkind. (accessed Oct. 2011).
Shadowbox Magazine. Edited by Fletcher and Rivera. (accessed Oct. 2011).

Gutkind, Lee, ed. The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Vol. 2. 2 vols. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Jones, Judith Kitchen & Mary Paumier, ed. In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Paola, Brenda Miller and Suzanne. Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Stewart, John L., ed. The Essay – A Critical Anthology. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952.