Drowning in Truth: Lessons from Dispatches from the Drownings by B.J. Hollars

Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction by B.J. Hollars is a deep, poignant look into the nature of nonfiction, specifically in how it relates to truth and fiction. Dispatches starts with a very necessary Author’s Note, in which Hollars explains his project:

Sticking with my ‘75/25 theory’ on the validity of facts, only seventy-five percent of the following hundred drowning dispatches are based on true accounts. The other twenty-five are completely fabricated. I have made no effort to differentiate. In fact, in an attempt to thwart the sleuthing reader, I have gone so far as to manufacture false entries in my bibliography. (Hollars, xiv)

Thus Hollars begins an exploration of where truth is found in journalism, in creative nonfiction, and in fiction and where the lines are between these three genres. Though Hollars admits that this way of going about things will be maddening for some readers, he is also clear and upfront about his truthfulness (or lack thereof). It could be argued that this ends up being more honest than most journalism, which does not discuss the writer’s own motives, how she comes to choose the facts she chooses, or what she chooses to stretch or leave out.

Dispatches is indeed a fascinating foray into the exploration of truth in writing, but it is also much more than that. I found myself unable to put the book down. This, despite the fact that Hollars himself admits that there is very little suspense in the book. Most of the stories end the same way, with a drowning. However, Hollars uses many techniques to keep the reader going. Some of these are very straightforward. The shortness of the articles, between one hundred and five hundred words pushes the reader on. The use of white space in the book keeps the articles from running together and also allows the reader that sense of moving quickly through the pages. It is, quite literally, a page-turner. The writing is also captivating, making puns or drawing conclusions so that the reader must ask: Is this Hollars or is he “paraphrasing” what was already there? So many of the articles end with eyebrow-raising lines, like the one about the man thought to have had a heart attack: “On his last swim, however, his heart was no longer in it” (Hollars, 162) or the story of the drowning of the “inmate at the feeble-minded home” which ends with “It appears as if they boy who sought independence on Independence Day found freedom at last in the river” (Hollars, 136).

Some of the things that keep the reader going, however, go deeper into the choices that Hollars made. For one, there is a great variety in the types of stories that Hollars uses. While most of the stories end in death by drowning, they don’t all. The stories vary from the rescue of a pig, to lovers’ quarrels, to mothers drowning children, to men in logging accidents. The sheer range of possibilities of ways to drown is mind-boggling. Additionally, Hollars gives us also a range of details. The articles do not simply state the name and date, etc. Some give the process of grief of survivors, some give the background of the deceased, some give insight into how mental illness was portrayed at the time, some give details about clothing, customs, or celebrations of the time period. The effect is that the reader is not reading the same story over and over again, but instead is looking through one hundred peepholes which give tiny glimpses into the lives of the people and the past. This effect is heightened by the use of photographs from that time period and place.

This array of information given and information withheld also leaves the reader with questions that keep her going through the book. What is mother’s disease? Did they ever find the body? Was that really an accident? What happened to the money? Hollars plays to these questions by very rarely giving the answers. For about four of the articles, he also gives follow-up articles that explain the story more fully. This keeps the reader going in hopes that more might be explained. It is very rare that it ever is.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that keeps the reader going is the search for truth. Knowing that twenty-five percent of the articles are not factual makes the book into a game, as if the more the reader reads, the more insight will be gained, and therefore perhaps the reader will be able to tell the “fraudulent” articles from the real ones. The reader feels as if perhaps the next article will hold clues about how to tell which stories are real, about how to read this book. True to his philosophy, Hollars never reveals which stories we may take as truth and which he fabricated. Instead of leaving the reader maddened, this has the effect of leaving the reader haunted: haunted by the drownings which may or may not have taken place, haunted that we may never know what happened, haunted by idea that truth may not be as easy to grasp as we once thought. Indeed, Hollars writes that he leaves Dispatches with the same ghosts: “Despite all my research, I could no longer precisely recall which stories were factual and which I’d fabricated… I’ve studied the facts, I’ve fabricated the fictions, but I no longer know which me to believe” (Hollars, 184).

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Call for Submissions: City Lit Rag

City Lit Rag is a cool little online zine that is currently accepting poetry and prose submissions.  Check out their submission guidelines below and go to their Submissions Page to submit before October 1!

Submit

Please follow the below guidelines carefully. If you don’t follow them we don’t read your work. Simple as that. And believe me we want to read your work. So here’s what you have to do to get on our good side:

Submissions open on August 30-October 1 for the fall issue. Please submit then.

PROSE

  • 3,000 words maximum of fiction or non-fiction.
  • Do not submit previously published work (yes, we consider Web sites, blogs, etc. as previously published)

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  • Microsoft  or RTF attachment in the submission form. Please include your name and contact information on each page.

POETRY



  • Submit up to five poems at a time in a single file (they should be your best poems).
  • Do not submit previously published work (we consider Web sites, blogs, etc. as previously published).
  • Microsoft  or RTF attachment in the submission form. Please include your name and contact information on each page.

COVER LETTER

  • Please include a short paragraph about yourself in the body of the email.
  • Also include a link to your Web site.
  • We’ll publish your social media info too if you include that.

RIGHTS

  • Unfortunately, there is no payment at this time (we wish we could pay you).
  • If your work is accepted, it is subject to minor editing and copyrighted upon publication, plus you automatically grant us First Serial Rights to publish it first and Electronic Archival Rights to archive it online.
  • Rights revert back to the author upon publication (they really do).
  • If a piece of yours is reprinted, please mention it appeared in City Lit Rag (CLR) first (it’s nice).
  • We won’t ever share or sell your personal information.

SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS

  • These are fine as long as you notify us when another market accepts your work.
  • If another market accepts one or more of your flashes/poems, please contact us.

WHAT WE DON’T WANT

Genre fiction (horror, erotica, romance, sci-fi, chapters of novels or complete novels for that matter, alt lit poetry, etc.)
. Miscellany (interviews, letters, lists, reviews, etc.).

Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of The Situation and the Story that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Eschewing Genre in Creative Nonfiction: Richard K. Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven

Make Prayers to the raven book cover

Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a documentation of the plants and animals that frequent the forests of interior Alaska. It’s true that this book is about a place I am currently enthralled with. It’s also true that there’s a soft spot in my heart for any book about plants and wildlife. However, what makes this book really interesting is the ways in which Nelson eschews nonfiction genres to come up with something all his own.

This book could have been a narrative of his experiences living in a Koyukon village in the 1970s. It wasn’t. It doesn’t occur in chronological order and doesn’t have much of a narrative arc. Instead, the book is structured in chapters such as “The Birds” and “Ecological Patterns and Conservation Practices” with subheadings for individual species and phenomena. This sets the tone for the work feeling like a guidebook to the forest.

Instead of listing facts about animals and plants, however, Nelson draws on a multitude of sources in order to give a greater picture of how the Koyukon people view and interact with the world around them. He uses the research of anthropologists who have come before him, anecdotes from his experiences of living in the village, and excerpts from his own journal. The effects of these sources are interesting. What is structured and presented as a catalog of facts about the forest becomes a little less black-and-white. This is apropos given the nature of Koyukon beliefs and knowledge about the forest, which is up for interpretation and change based on personal experience. It is also appropriate given Nelson’s awareness of his own status as an outsider, which makes him wary of speaking for the Koyukon people. By using this variety of resources including his own experiences and journal entries, he can give his readers the same impressions that he had without putting words in other people’s mouths.

Nelson as the writer is interestingly placed in this book. For a book that uses anecdotal evidence and journal entries for much of its information, the narrator is surprisingly absent. This is because all of the personal writing and experience that Nelson uses is always about something other than himself. His journal is only used to further give information and rarely gives his own ideas or thoughts. Nelson very consciously positions himself as an outsider in the village and the culture about which he is writing, and he does a good job of keeping himself an outsider in the book that he writes.

The end result is that Make Prayers to the Raven is not an anthropological study of the Koyukon people, or a wildlife guide to the forest of Interior Alaska, or a narrative about Nelson’s experiences there. Instead, there’s a melding of these possibilities. For me as a writer, it made me think a little more broadly about the ways that I can structure and inform my nonfiction. Nelson shows that the structure, the sources used, and the position of the I do not need to all line up to one traditional standard genre. Instead, using these things in unconventional ways can allow us as writers to come to greater truths than following convention alone.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Using Fiction in Memoir: Maxine Hong Kinston’s The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston uses fiction to heighten the poignancy and power of her memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.  Throughout the book, Kingston uses not only her own memories, but also the stories she’s been told to form for the reader a picture of her formative years and the tension she feels as she creates an identity for herself.  She uses fictional elements to speculate, draw meaning, and show her reader the effects that stories (whether they be true or not) come to bear on one’s identity.

Kingston opens her book with “No Name Woman,” a story about her aunt.  But this isn’t just any family story.  It’s one that is shrouded in mystery and silence.  Because of this secrecy, Kingston must resort to speculating to fill in the details of this story.  It’s important that she understand the details because this story is one that her mother uses as a cautionary tale.  In ruminating about the details of this story, Kingston comes up with several possible variations even ones that she admits are improbable and don’t fit.  She wrestles with understanding the details of the story so that she can find “ancestral help” (8).  However, this speculation has come to bear on Kingston’s understanding of herself as a Chinese-American woman.  Kingston shows us through these variations of the story how this family narrative has shaped her understanding of many things.  It shaped the way she understood her relationship with her parents, and with her extended family.  It shaped the way Kingston understands what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a woman.  It shaped her relationships with men and her ideas about differing standards of beauty.  Ultimately, it shaped how Kingston came to understand her own identity.  In sharing these different versions of the story, Kingston shares with her readers her process for dealing with the story and shows the reader the impact that both the story and the silence surrounding the story have had on her.

In “Shaman” Kingston takes her storytelling even further from anything that could be seen as the “objective reality” that we normally associate with the genre of nonfiction.  The chapter starts with a ghost story from the point of view of Kingston’s mother as a schoolgirl.  In it, her mother actually wrestles with a ghost before exorcising it from the school.  In a genre bent on “honesty” and “truth,” stories like this one can be difficult for a reader to swallow.  But Kingston uses the story to show how she came to see herself living in a world full of ghosts. She says that “America has been so full of machines and ghosts — Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). This discussion of ghosts shows the importance of Kingston’s childhood understanding of being “other” in America and allows the reader to feel the otherworldliness of that experience.  Describing that feeling and the day-to-day happenings in her life alone would not have given the same emotional impact to the reader.  By using these fictional elements, Kingston lets her reader feel along with her the supernatural, the fear, the separateness that comes with understanding herself in relation to her surroundings that way.

Kingston’s fictional storytelling reaches its apex in “White Tigers,” in which she spends nearly twenty pages telling the story of Fa Mu Lan.  However, she does not tell the story in a detached, here’s-a-story-from-my-childhood sort of way.  Nor does she tell it in a let-me-tell-you-a-historical-story-of-my heritage way.  Instead, she tells the story in first person, as she experienced it herself when she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and dreams began” (19).  In telling this story in first person, the reader can begin to understand the impact of this story on a young Kingston and can feel the expectations and potential that Kingston would have felt as a child.  It also brings home her point when she says, “My American life has been such a disappointment” (45).  Because the reader has seen the story of Fa Mu Lan from the eyes of Kingston herself, the reader can understand on a deeper level the sense of disappointment that the author must have felt.  Finally, Kingston shows how important this story and stories in general have been in her life when she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan, “What we have in common are the words at our backs” (53).  Here she suggests that while they do not have the shared experience of going to war in ancient China, the stories that they have in common unite them.  Because of this, Kingston can use Fa Mu Lan’s story to come to a deeper understanding of herself, her experiences, and her expectations.

Throughout the book, Kingston tells her reader about listening to the talk-story of her family and the ways in which these talk-stories came to bear on her understanding of herself. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19). More than just telling her reader the importance of these stories on her life and memories, she shows us by telling us the stories, too. They have more weight than we usually give fictional stories because we can see how Kingston was influenced by these stories. Because we are told the stories as well, we as readers can also be influenced by them and therefore relate to Kingston and her experiences.

Though it may seem that including these non-factual stories in Woman Warrior undermines the validity of the truth of Kingston’s memories, it actually has the effect of giving a fuller picture of her dreams, expectations, disappointments, and fears.  Without these stories, it would be more difficult for readers to understand the complexities of Kingston’s experience growing up between cultures.  These stories allow the reader to feel the dissonance between Kingston’s Chinese upbringing and her American existence.  In the same way, when writing nonfiction, we can use fictional elements and stories to give the reader a fuller picture of our experiences.  Fictional stories often hold weight in the factual world, coming to bear on the ways that people understand themselves, the places around them, and their relationships with society at large.  Using these fictional stories to give a fuller picture is especially useful in memoirs.  If we are trying to understand and to help our readers understand our experiences, the stories we tell ourselves can give more insight into how we’ve developed and come to understand ourselves.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

One of the most compelling things about I Could Tell You Stories is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.