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 this project 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.

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

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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 arch. 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 this book 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.

Sharing: Suburban Ecology I by TheCartographe

I found this amazing bit of writing the other day on TheCartographe and just needed to share it with you!  As a lover of place and environment and the way that spaces effect us, I adore what’s happening on this blog: “TheCartographe is about the curation of the environment: the selection of images, texts, and ideas that is the formation of a landscape. Topography is physical, but landscape is always psychic.”

This blog is not to be missed. Enjoy!

 

Suburban Ecology I

July 9, 2014.

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Some millennia before the present, when the sea was in places it currently is not, it might have been that Anne Barton’s yard was a natural beach of smooth-hewn stones — perfect and round, themselves looking for all the world like fat droplets of water thrown up and clinging on the grassy shore.  The blue velvet easy chair stood primly on the rocks, taking the sea air like one who — feinting — is afraid of the ocean.  But Anne’s yard was not really a beach, of course, and the chair moreover took no solace from the pretend game of seaside release and introspection.  It did not appreciate the scene before it: the crisp break of sidewalk and swell of asphalt.  It was aware only of the thing it could not see — the blockish, secluded bungalow beyond the beachhead, where in the downstairs sitting room there was a precisely chair-shaped depression in a blanched shag carpet the colour of a watermelon where the meat comes to the rind.

I was in this house once, seven or eight years ago, when for one or another reason I  was collecting a size-adjustable mannequin from the Vietnam-era parlor upstairs, located at one end of a hallway encased exclusively by mirrors which, when shoved with some force, would open to reveal narrow closets stuffed with outerwear, shoes, and unlabelled boxes.  The front door, up a half-flight of steps from the lawn and partly concealed by an globular rhododendron, opened onto this hallway, and pointed inside toward the kitchen at the house’s rear.  There, I remember, Ms. Barton, an elderly woman who — to me — has never visibly aged, remained sitting at a card table while she asked me, standing against the entrance to the hall, if I would consider volunteering for her Sunday School.  I can’t recall answering the question.  Instead, I remember leafing through the records — none of which I recognized — contained in a cardboard box which sat on a brass-framed, stackable chair in the parlor, across the way from the kitchen.  I waited until Anne’s granddaughter, my associate, reappeared with a small plastic container filled with a multitude of compartments for pins, all heads different colours, and we departed with the rattling mannequin in parts under our free arms.

At that time, Anne’s garden was not half-covered in rocks.  In fact, it was a serene, if somewhat weedy glade, set apart from the street by the low boughs of a blue-needled pine tree which I did not recognize and now assume was originally decorative.  I lived — still live — in the house beside Anne’s; somewhat newer, somewhat more modish, my father would exasperatedly but quietly rake pinecones and long, browned needles off our lawn from September to Christmas.  At that time, Anne’s glade had real seating: a chipped, white wooden loveseat over-thrown by a modified trellis, and an elaborate swing — also wood — which reminded me always of my brother’s books on medieval implements of war.

It was one summer when I returned from university that the pine tree had been felled — its little ecosystem of sputtering grass and shed needles replaced by a neatly edged bed of lava rock.  Two ceramic pots had been placed off-centre on the wide stump, and in them the plastic-coated cardboard tags that identify greenhouse plants sprouted up like tombstones behind small, flowering stalks.  It was just last summer when the first five metres of Anne’s lawn had been dug up and replaced with the round stones.  At the same time, things began appearing on her driveway.  First the loveseat and swing, which soon disappeared, and then boxes of clothes, which would likewise appear in the morning and have vanished upon my return home in the afternoon.  Then, a tarpaulin tent appeared over a metal pole frame in the middle of the driveway, and a 1995 red Ford mustang would regularly pull in and out of it, as if on the tide.  This largely concealed the garage door, which remained closed during all this time.  I did not see Anne, though my father told me she continued to live there, and the cars that came and went (I noticed only the red convertible) were the vehicles of family and friends — or of the tenants downstairs who had moved in to the bungalow’s expansive basement.

The chair knew very little of this, being limited to the influence of the downstairs tenants and its sidelong views of sporadic children’s play in the tenants’ backyard daycare, a business Anne surely appreciated because of her attachment to children and their ideal upbringing.  When it was removed, I think, its first logical concern must have been the expected weather, and secondly the simple sign hung across its back — “FREE” — which would surely give anyone’s self-esteem a miserable pummeling.  It was, I doubt, hardly troubled by the premise that in millennia to come, it could be considered a distracting embellishment on the ecology of the house — a throwaway decoration not unlike the faking of a shoreline in a time of changing seas.

-tC

Prompts to Start the New Year

 

 

I always feel like there’s an excitement in the air this time of year, a freshness that’s just waiting to be plucked.  The new year is pregnant with possibility and is just waiting for us to snatch it up.  In celebration of that, here are some revisited prompts to get your creativity and inspiration going.  Enjoy!

The Encyclopedia Game

Myths in New Places

Anagrams

Reimagining History: Rasputin

When the Goddesses Come Out

Write Fast

 

Creative Commons love to http://www.flickr.com/photos/bartmaguire/ for the photo! Thanks!

Prompt: Myths in New Places

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words… Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” ” – Joseph Campbell

It never fails when I need something to write about to read folklore or mythology.  It’s like instant inspiration for me.  So many of the stories are so rich and yet so bare.  They feel like playgrounds to me.  They beg to be told from different perspectives.  They seem to yearn to have details filled in.  They taunt me with the questions, ‘But what happened after that?’

But this prompt is not about retelling.  This is an exercise in setting.  I will admit that I often do not give the setting of a story enough thought.  Setting changes everything.

Pick a random myth or folktale from the (amazing!) collection at the University of Pittsburgh’s website here.  Some fun things I’ve tried: tales starting with the same letter as my name, a character’s name —   you get the point.  Then spin a globe and pick a random place to set your story.  Or, better yet, use the antipodes map to set your story on the exact opposite side of the globe.  Set the story in modern day to change the setting even more.

I would be super interested in seeing what other people come up with, so if you do this, please share!

 

Creative Commons love to Tina Bell Vance, from flickr for the photo.  Please check out her work.  It is amazing!

Prompt: Rasputin

One of my favorite themes is re-imagining history.  The stories of history have so many holes of details waiting to be filled and re-envisaged.  There is so little we know about most of history, about the people and the details.

It is, after all, a story.  We may piece together the best we can using clues, sleuthing like backwards-looking Sherlock Holmes.  But the real life of a story is in the details and often times when it comes to the past, the details are mere conjecture.  That conjecture is necessary to bring history to life.

Also, history holds great characters.  Take Rasputin, for example.  Lover of the Russian Queen. A pious figure in Russian history, and also Russia’s greatest love machine, apparently.  These characters themselves can make incredible stories, ala Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Who are some of your favorite characters in history?  How can they be brought to bear on the story telling of today?  What kinds of situations would you like to see them in?

Also, this song is super dance-able.

 

 

 

 

You can see me trying my own hand at this prompt here:  https://lightningdroplets.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/akhenaten-winter-2012/