Fiction Technique in Creative Nonfiction
Fiction Technique in Creative Nonfiction:
The “I” as Character, and Other Imaginative Introductions of the Objective into the Subjective
(c)Christine Hale 2011
Long after I impulsively jotted down the title for this talk, I noticed its somewhat counterintuitive wording: “imaginative” introductions of the “objective” into the subjective. This struck me as amusing because I, at least, tend to think of “imaginative” as roughly synonymous with “not real.” Turns out, now that I’ve worried out the substance of my talk, that the separation between objective and subjective—and between nonfiction and fiction—appears less distinct and way more creatively fertile than I’d heretofore appreciated.
I’ve always written both nonfiction and fiction, but I come to the study of craft through my own MFA experience in fiction. Mentoring nonfiction has made me more and more conscious of the ways the two genres are distinct in intent yet overlap in technique. I hope, in my talk today, to say something of use to you about what I’ve figured out, so far.
The usual reason given in workshop and conference for introducing fiction technique, typically thought of as scene & dialogue, into creative nonfiction is to “enliven it.” We may also speak of the capacity of scene and dialogue to engage the reader, allowing her “to participate” in the story by becoming a fly on the wall. A common response of new writers told to introduce fiction technique into their creative nonfiction is resistance to doing so, out of fear of thereby not telling the truth, or out of distaste for “making things up.” I don’t want to resurrect the tired debate over truth versus lies in memoir—I support integrity over deception, period, and in my opinion it’s not that difficult to know when you’re deliberately misleading readers. But for purposes of today’s talk I do assert that all personal narrative—whether it’s memoir, personal essay, travel writing, or literary journalism—is to some degree subjective, by definition, because it is a product of an individual consciousness, and what we perceive with our senses, what we value, and what we have to say about those things depends on who we are and where we stand in time, space, class, and culture.
Therefore, nonfiction is not inherently more “objective” or “more true” than fiction. Nonfiction, creative or not, is “fact-based.” That is, verifiable facts lifted from generally agreed-upon reality form a stepping off place for a work of nonfiction. Fiction, on the other hand, in the words of critic and author James Wood, “floats an alternate reality” (202). In either genre, the writer attempts, via artifice—defined as “the use of clever stratagems”—to fully snare a reader’s attention and move her emotions.
My point is, there is no neat distinction between “the objective” and “the subjective.” Rather than presenting a problem, this ambiguity is a rich source of those clever stratagems we writers need in order to capture and keep a reader’s heart and mind. In truth—as I see it—“objective” and “subjective” arise from differing perspectives on the matter at hand. In other words, what a reader experiences as objective or subjective on the page is a function of the technique fiction writers call point of view (POV), which might be most simply defined as “who speaks, and from what distance” (Burroway 296).
I want to begin by exploring with “who speaks.” New writers worry, when writing from personal experience, about sounding “victim-y” or self-important. When writing essays or literary journalism, writers may struggle with their lack of authority to speak about a given subject that happens to interest them. And everybody who writes and tries to publish creative nonfiction dreads the rude, litmus-test question of first readers and editors: “So what?” Who cares about your experience, your opinions, your problems and obsessions?
In fiction, readers care about characters. The main character in a story or novel, who as a rule, in order to earn the reader’s empathy, should be “rounded”—flawed as well as heroic, vulnerable as well as monstrous—is the reader’s ride. The main character in a memoir is the writer him or herself. The “ride” in a personal essay or piece of literary journalism is the “eye” of the writer—that lens which selects and focuses what the reader will experience; this is true, I believe, no matter how effaced the pronoun “I” may be in the piece.
When writing creative nonfiction, then, we must pay attention to the role of the narrator. Whether that 1st person narrator is central, as in memoir, or peripheral, as in an essay of ideas, we must figure out as we revise how to round the “I” character so that the reader will care about what she or he has to say. In memoir, in order to avoid sounding victim-y or self-aggrandizing, the writer has to make himself vulnerable, by portraying himself as others see him, warts and all. In other forms of creative nonfiction, the writer must search for and then write from her “stake” in the subject, so that she speaks with the authority of passionate engagement, rendering moot the ugly “so what?” question. For readers wishes to engage with a consciousness that seems to emanate from someone recognizably ‘real’ or human—not a machine, not a caricature, not a marketing shill, not a propagandist.
We all know that in fiction character is created through dialogue, action, and concrete details of appearance and setting, plus, maybe, the character’s reported thoughts and the comments of other characters about him, and, in some cases, explanation provided by a central-intelligence narrator. We also know that many of us rely way too much on transcribing a character’s thoughts and on authorial-telling in our fiction, and the same is true in creative nonfiction, where many of us struggle to move beyond a transcription of our inner monologue of memories, self-doubts, and riffs on whatever fascinates or infuriates us.
Characters come alive in scene. Whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction we’ve been told that in workshop, probably. When asked to define “scene,” most of us say we know it when we see it, but we may have trouble articulating a definition. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, says scene is “a method of treating time” (219). Heather Sellers, whom some of you remember as a recent visiting writer to the program, says “scene is a box containing drama, delimited by time” (285). Remember that: there has to be a box (scene happens in setting, a container full of people and objects); there has to be drama (things get said and stuff happens), and the whole time you’re in a scene a clock is ticking second by second, just as if you were watching a stage play.
Notice that scene allows for four of the six techniques of characterization I mentioned above: dialogue, action, setting & appearance details, and the comments of other characters. It’s awkward to report a character’s thoughts inside a scene, and nearly impossible to have a central-intelligence, aka the author, explain the character to readers without breaking down the scene. These limits are a big plus for most of us, forcing us to do less of what we’re inclined to overdo.
When we watch characters act out a scene in a stage play, our experience of them is objective. We are outside them, watching them move and listening to them speak. As I began this lecture, however, I said that what a reader experiences from the page may be subjective or objective, depending on the writer’s use of the technique fiction writers call POV: who speaks, and from what distance. We can write scene in 1st person, 2nd person, or 3rd person, singular or plural in each case, whether we’re writing nonfiction or fiction. “Person”—who speaks—is the aspect of POV that’s most obvious, since the pronoun gives it away. From what distance—the technical term for this is narrative distance—is a more slippery concept, because in practice it’s a nuance.
There are three parties to narrative distance: reader, writer, and character. The concept of narrative distance describes where—at what distance—the writer positions the reader relative to character. [front-pack image] Long narrative distance occurs when the writer/reader observes a character from the outside—relatively objectively, as in a stage play. Or, as in Hemingway’s frequently anthologized short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” In fact, Hemingway’s stance via his characters in that story is referred to as “objective author” POV by Burroway (299).
Short narrative distance, on the other hand, places the reader way up inside a character’s mind and body, giving the reader a very subjective, embodied experience of what the character is seeing, feeling, and doing. Narrative distance is not to be confused with person; narrative distance can be long or short whether one is writing in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. Another point to keep in mind, one I’ll return to later, is that narrative distance is seldom static. Throughout a story, a novel, an essay, a paragraph, and sometimes even within a single sentence, narrative distance can and does shift. Manipulation of narrative distance is a technique, a clever stratagem, for creating the reader’s “ride” or experience, whether in fiction or nonfiction. How this is done, I’ll come back to in examples in a moment.
Most creative nonfiction writers choose to render a given story-moment in scene for the same reason fiction writers do: to dramatize—i.e., act out—the game-changing moments in a story, whether these enact big dramas, or subtle but highly significant emotional shifts.
Here’s a scene from Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life. The character, Arthur, is overweight and, like Wolff at this point in his life, a social outcast. Wolff, who goes by the nickname Jack in those days, already feels drawn to Arthur as like kind, and Arthur will eventually turn out to be his best friend in an unfriendly town, but when this scene opens they know each other only as two kids in the same grade at school.
"I started things off by calling him Fatso.
Arthur continued to smile at me. 'Excuse me,' he said, 'but has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like a pile of wet vomit?'
We went on like this, and then I called him a sissy.
The smile left his face. And at that moment it came to me that although everyone referred to Arthur as a sissy, I had never heard anyone actually use the word in front of him (108-109).
Next come three long paragraphs detailing the feints and the blows in the two boys’ fight. I’ll skip to the third one:
Still rolling, we hit the boggy swale at the foot of the bank. He got on top of me. My news bag had armored me well when I was on my feet but now it was heavy with mud and twisted around my shoulders. I couldn’t get off a good swing. All I could do was hold on to Arthur and try to keep him from getting one off at me. He struggled, then abruptly collapsed on top of me. He was panting for breath. His weight pressed me into the mud. I gathered myself and bucked him off. It took everything I had. We lay next to each other, gasping strenuously. Pepper [Arthur’s dog] tugged at my pant leg and growled.
Arthur stirred. He got to his feet and started up the bank. I followed him, thinking it was all over, but when he got to the top he turned and said, “Take it back.”
The other boys were watching me. I shook my head.
Arthur pushed me and I began sliding down the bank.
'Take it back,' he yelled.
Pepper followed me in my descent, yapping and lunging. There hadn’t been a moment since the fight began when Pepper wasn’t worrying me in some way, if only to bark and bounce around me, and finally it was this more than anything else that made me lose heart. It wounded my spirit to have a dog against me. I liked dogs. I liked dogs more than I Iiked most people, and I expected them to like me back.
I started up the bank again, Pepper still at my heels.
'Take it back,' Arthur said.
'Okay,' I said.
'Okay. I take it back.'
'No. Say,"You’re not a sissy."'
I looked up at him and the other two boys. There was pleasure and scorn on their faces, but not on his. He wore, instead, an expression of such earnestness that it seemed impossible to refuse him what he asked. I said, 'You’re not a sissy.'
He called Pepper and turned away. When I got to the top he was walking toward home. The other two boys were excited, restless, twitching with the blows they’d imagined striking. They wanted to talk about the fight, but I had lost interest in it. My clothes were caked with mud. My news bag, full of mud and ruined papers, pulled down on me. My ear hurt.
I trudged homeward.
Pearl [his step-sister] was sitting on the steps, eating something. She looked me over as I walked up. 'You’re in Dutch,' she said (110-111).
If you didn’t know this was memoir, you’d accept it as an incident from a short story written in the 1st person POV. Wolff is, after all, a consummate short story writer. Wolff uses scene to show rather than tell us that although his then-self Jack has a chip on his shoulder and will fight, he’s not a particularly aggressive or skillful fighter. His inner self is a sensitive boy who readily reads emotional cues from others’ facial expressions and cares enough about another person’s dignity to draw public humiliation to himself instead. “Who speaks” in this scene is, of course, Jack. Let’s take a closer look at “from what distance” he speaks. Notice the clues that Wolff is recounting this fight retrospectively; that is, his now-self, Tobias Wolff looking back across the years, describes vividly what happened then:
• And at that moment it came to me – Wolff is standing outside the moment looking back at it. Ditto for There hadn’t been a moment since the fight began. From deep within the moment of the fight he wouldn’t have the perspective, nor the breath, to come up with these interpretations.
• The description of the fight is vivid but not particularly embodied; with the exception of the weight of the news bag, we readers don’t really feel in our bodies what Jack felt.
• Gasping strenuously – this is the adult author’s diction, not young Jack’s.
The writer has positioned the reader at a kind of middle distance from the character Jack for most of this scene. However, sometimes the narrative distance collapses, placing the reader inside Jack’s body and emotions:
• It wounded my spirit to have a dog against me. The diction and syntax (word choice and sentence structure)—and the insight are probably those of the adult Tobias Wolff. But “I liked dogs. I liked dogs more than I Iiked most people,” this is the voice of Jack-then, isn’t it? We hear his boyish angst. We chuckle, but we also sympathize.
• My clothes were caked with mud. My news bag, full of mud and ruined papers, pulled down on me. My ear hurt. I trudged homeward. In these statements, the reader wears the mud, feels the weight of wet papers and lost income, and has a stinging ear. The reader feels exactly what Jack feels.
So, the writer’s stratagem, variations in narrative distance, creates a ride for the reader that lets us experience the fight as onlooking adults while also, at some points, feeling Jack’s adolescent pain.
Next, let’s look at some excerpts from a very long scene in Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club.
"We’re cleaning ducks—Daddy and I, and the other fellows. By nine this morning, we’d bagged our limit. I’m scooping the guts out of a little teal duck, and Daddy is pulling feathers from the huge slackened body of our only Canadian goose. With one swipe of his hand he clears a wide path in the feathers. 'Momma was rough as a wood-hauler’s ass,' he says, and that’s high praise. Back in the logging camp, wood haulers drove mule-drawn wagons of raw lumber. Since their butts rubbed up against unstripped pine all day, they became badges of toughness.
'How many eggs ya’ll want?' Ben wants to know. Everybody says three. He slides a big slab of Crisco into the black skillet. We stopped here at Cooter’s one-room cabin to clean ducks and eat breakfast. It’s on Chupique Bayou, just across the river in Louisiana.
'Not as big as a minute, my mother,' Daddy says. 'But mean as a snake if you ever lied to her'"(162-163).
For the next three pages, Daddy tells young Mary and his other hunting buddies a long story about Momma whipping him and his brother A.D. for going swimming in a flooded river right after a hurricane. She told them not to go, and when she catches them coming home, Daddy lies about where they’ve been but A.D. blurts out the truth. As a result, they both get beaten, A.D. for disobeying Momma, and Daddy for lying. While this story’s getting told, everybody in the cabin continues cleaning ducks, cooking or waiting for breakfast, and picking at each other. In particular, Cooter baits the one black man among them, Shug, and young Mary recognizes this as arising from typical, constant, unacknowledged race tension. The whole scene, vivid and funny in a gross way and always tense, runs about seven printed pages. Here’s most of the last two:
"Daddy drops the mallard in the tub like he’s all of a sudden exhausted by thinking again about that whipping. The whole burden of it seems to fall on him full force. His shoulders slump. The deep lines of his face get deeper. Then he gets an unfocused look at the middle distance like the beating’s happening right in the room, and all he has to do is watch it and report back to the other guys. 'That pole of hers cut the shirt right off my back in about four swipes.' His head drops lower, as if under the weight of that pole, which is getting easier by the minute for me to imagine. 'I’ve had grown men beat on me with tire irons and socks full of nickels and every conceivable kind of stick. But that old woman shrunk up like a pullet hen took that piss elum pole and flat set me on fire from my shoulders clear down past my ass. And every time she said a word, she brought that pole down. "Don’t—you—lie—to—me—Don’t—you—run—from—me!" Hell, I broke loose from her a couple of times... and then that pole would find my back again. You could hear it come whistling through the air just a heartbeat before you felt it. And Momma behind it just hacking at me like I was a pine she was trying to knock over. I was scared to fall. Scared I wouldn’t live to get vertical again. I promise you that. You think she was wore out on A.D.?' He squints at us, then picks up the mallard again and picks a few of the quills like he’s winding down. 'Hell, she just warmed up on A.D.'
'They hate that when you run,' Ben says. He’s sliding the last egg onto the platter. 'My grandma was the same exact way. Running just dragged it out.' Of course, I am famous for running in the middle of a spanking. It makes me proud that Daddy used to run too. I always figured only a dumbass would just stand still and take it. I have maneuvered my way over by the stove and am eye level now with the plate of biscuits, which have plumped up nice and brown on the top. The slightest blink from Ben saying okay, and I will snatch the first one...
Daddy sets down the duck again, and a smile stretches across his face, his eyes crinkle up, and his shoulders go square like the best part of the story just bubbled back up in him...
'I head out behind the shed,' Daddy says, 'and there’s old A.D. hunkered down on the ground. "Say, brother," I says to him.' Daddy’s voice as he makes out talking to Uncle A.D. is smooth and sweet as melty butter. '"I believe you made out pretty bad back there." I tell him I got some burn salve may take that sting out. And A.D. he bends over. Starts picking at that shirt on his back where that fabric’s stuck down in them sores. He’s a-hissing between his teeth. Gets that old cotton blouse pulled up over his shoulder blades, then asks me does that look bad. And I say, "Poor old you." Course she cut the shirt slap off my back. "Pull your shirt off your neck a little higher," I says to him. "I don’t want to get this here salve on it. Piss Momma off any worse." So he bends way over further. Gets bent double-like. His arms all hung up in them shirtsleeves till he’s stuck like a snake in a sock. That’s when I grab hold to him. Pour that old turpentine horse liniment down in them sores. Was a deep, purple-black liniment Momma made from tar. I held him still and smeared it in with the flat of my hand. And him wrassling me to break loose....'
Shug’s brow has grown a furrow like it bothers him. He claims to Daddy that you couldn’t get that stuff off you, not out of a cut or something. And Daddy says that was the very idea, to scald Uncle A.D. down to the bone for tattling on him.
That sets me wondering. I hear about Daddy doing this kind of meanness, and I see guys shy away when he strolls over to a pool table, but he handles me like I’m something glass. Even his spankings are mild enough to seem symbolic. When I got up cold this morning before we set out for the bayou, he warmed my socks over the gas heater before I pulled them on...my daddy buys me whatever I ask for and laughs at my jokes and tells me he loves me better than anybody about fifty times a day. I’ve seen him fight, but I’ve never seen this sneaky meanness he talks about at the Liars’ Club. I look at him scrubbing the blood out from under his fingernails with a pale blue plastic brush and wonder about it. He’s laughing like hell over what he did to A.D. Daddy pats his hands dry on a dish towel. 'I left old A.D. squirming on the ground. Scrabbling to get away from hisself.'
Ben upends the pan of biscuits, which fall out of the tin in a perfect steaming circle. They’re crusty brown on the bottom. He nods at me to tear one loose, and I do. But I have to hot-potato it hand to hand to keep it from burning me. Finally, I drop it on the counter and cup my hands over it in a little igloo that I blow on. When I look up from that, I see that Ben also has a dark look on his face, like he can’t get away from the meanness of this story fast enough either" (168-170).
Here, in contrast to the passage from Tobias Wolff’s memoir, Karr gives us much more access to the “I”-character’s consciousness. She writes from deep within young Mary’s POV and includes in the scene Mary-then’s thoughts and feelings as these evolve underneath the whipping story her father tells. Karr-the-author is doing a lot in this unusually long scene. She’s building Daddy’s character and Mary’s; she’s establishing the cultural and socio-economic milieu in which Mary grew up, including the race dynamic; she’s emphasizing the pervasive brutality in which all these people were raised and continue to live, and she’s exploring the way she was, as a child, both a tomboy and a daddy’s girl. But Karr is also carefully creating a subtle dramatic irony: her then-self’s reluctant realization that Daddy is not perfect and may be not-so-nice either.
Note, then, that narrative distance is a tool—a clever stratagem—that allows irony to arise. Karr the author has the long view on her Daddy now. But back then, where she places us up close inside the mind and body of Mary-then, she didn’t want to know about the dark side of her father, nor what that implied about his capacity to protect her and her sister from their dangerously crazy mother. The reader, however, catches on via this scene to the implications of Daddy’s shiftiness for Mary’s future. We understand more than she does about her situation, and that’s irony. We feel sorry for her, yes, but we also nod our heads knowingly: this little girl’s going to grow up damaged, and fast.
Scene, then, introduces objectivity—the long view, irony, the opportunity to judge the narrator-character—into memoir and personal narrative. Scene puts the “I” character into perspective by showing him or her in action within a context bigger than the self.
The challenge in writing memoir is to actually find this much perspective on yourself. It’s not so easy to see ourselves as other see us, and the struggle to do so is maybe one of the best reasons for undertaking to write a memoir. But the objectivity conferred by scene is valuable not just in memoir but in all literary nonfiction. For example, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain is a work of immersion journalism in which the author avoids a holier-than-thou stance toward the snake-handlers he investigates by showing himself, in scene, wrapped in a rattlesnake and caught up in religious ecstasy. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a work of literary journalism, very much fact-based, investigating the motives and fate of Chris McCandless, a young man who in 1992 abandoned an affluent life to hike, completely unprovisioned, into the Alaskan wilderness, where he starved to death. Krakauer avoids glibly presenting McCandless as a kook or a suicide by including in the book two chapters, written partly in scene, that establish his stake in this material: his own poorly-planned attempt, in his early twenties, to ascend a sheer rock face of an Alaskan peak, Devil’s Thumb, by the most difficult route possible, alone and during a snowstorm.
Still, scene is “expensive” in terms of narrative time, page space, and the inherent difficulty of accurately reconstructing events and conversations long past. It is relatively rare to find extended scene in creative nonfiction other than in New Journalism, such as the Breslin example I’ve handed out, which I’ll return to later in the lecture.
It sometimes seems to me that discussion of the pervasive presence of fiction technique in contemporary creative nonfiction assumes that this is a completely new thing, added to or foisted on the venerable tradition of the personal essay, usually said to have begun with Michel de Montaigne in the 1500s. The brilliant essays of Emerson, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell, for example, cleave to the tradition derived from the French verb essayer, “to try” or “to test” an idea. These iconic essayists worry out social, political, and moral principles via intellectual argument, adding “color” via witty or erudite allusion. But color and warmth also arrive in these works via image, metaphor, concrete detail—and the occasional personally revealing statement.
When Emerson, in “Self-Reliance,” directs our attention to his book smelling of pines and the swallow over his window (1626-1627), we feel through the embodied vividness of those images the presence of a quietly observant man whose senses, and sensibility, registered those perceptions. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, uses a Manx cat to make a point about the shallow relationships and disaffected ambitions of scholars who lunch, but we do see that “truncated” cat picking its way across an over-groomed lawn and we do feel both the pique and the loneliness of Virginia Woolf herself through the implicit self-identification of the author with a cat that lacks, in the eyes of society, a certain essential appendage: as she says, “what a difference a tail makes” (13). When Orwell is forced, on account of his scripted role as white imperialist among subjugated natives to shoot the elephant he does not want to shoot, the socio-political point he makes is cerebral and explicit—very much in the tradition of essay, but the elephant’s death agony is narrated from deep within Orwell’s consciousness—no narrative distance at all: “he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered.... At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright” (940). Orwell feels what the elephant feels; he identifies with the unjustly condemned beast, and the reader identifies with both creatures, the cornered animal and the cornered man made weak by the need to appear strong.
The reader’s “ride” through the essay “Shooting an Elephant” is Orwell’s voice. In the iconic personal essays that are the root source of contemporary creative nonfiction, we recognize in each the distinctive voice of that author. We all understand that “voice” is essential to our reading pleasure, our engagement, whether in traditional or contemporary personal essay, in memoir, in biography, in immersion journalism, or in travel writing. When we read fiction, especially novels or stories written in 1st person or close 3rd person, we are also attuned to voice. Why is this so? Why is voice so important to readers, and why do I consider voice in nonfiction a form of fiction technique?
The term “voice” is hard to define. The simplest definition, the first one that made sense to me as a student writer, is “personality on the page.” Through a writer’s voice, readers feel or sense his or her nature. Voice, then, implicitly creates or at least suggests the “character” (in the fiction sense of the term) from whom that voice emanates.
Recall that I said earlier, “The reader wishes to engage with a consciousness that feels ‘real’, that seems to emanate from a person.” James Wood, writing about fiction, says “narrative can and often does give us a vivid sense of a character without giving us a vivid sense of an individual” (100). In other words, whether in fiction or nonfiction, readers do not need a lot of information to sense the presence and the nature of a character. Less, in many cases, is more, or at least enough. Wood goes on to quote the novelist Henry Green who says: “Nothing kills ‘life’ so much as ‘explanation’” (213).
So, when our intellects and our hearts thrum to the voice of an essayist, a memoirist, or a literary journalist, we are, in part, relating to the character the writer creates of himself or herself on the page.
Now, I want to look at the second root stock of contemporary creative nonfiction, the movement often called New Journalism, wherein during the 60s and 70s literary techniques usually associated with fiction began to appear in the work of journalists. While Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe are among the most famous pioneers of this genre, the newspaper article by Jimmy Breslin I handed out, titled “A Death in Emergency Room One,” and published in the New York Herald Tribune on November 24, 1963, may be one of the earliest widely read examples of the extensive use of fiction technique in subject matter conventionally considered the province of journalism. I am not an expert in New Journalism, and I know that some of you are, so I ask you to bear with me while I take a layman’s look at what this particular piece suggests to me about interplay of the subjective and the objective stance.
Breslin’s piece is a news story about the assassination of John F. Kennedy published two days after the event. Breslin, so far as I know, didn’t witness the shooting, and he definitely was not present in the emergency room as doctors tried to save a president who was probably already dead. Yet Breslin opens his piece by writing a scene in the 3rd person POV of one of the doctors, Malcolm Perry, and for most of the first two pages, this newspaper article reads just like a short story. Absent the by-line and date line up top, you’d have no clue this was newspaper reporting until the phrase, “Perry does not remember them,” near the bottom of page 2, briefly signals the presence of a peripheral narrator—i.e., a reporter—telling this story. Breslin not only writes a scene he’s had to imagine, he sometimes completely collapses the objectifying narrative distance between reporter and subject and projects himself, and therefore the reader, right up inside Dr. Perry’s consciousness. Near the bottom of the first page, Perry notices the “dark-haired girl”; that’s his diction, because you and I know that’s Jacqueline Kennedy and for the moment he doesn’t—she’s at the periphery of his vision, his mind’s on other things—we are shocked, and hooked, by the surprise and the irony of seeing her the way he sees her.
As the piece continues, Breslin will tell other parts of the story through the third person POV of Father Oscar Huber, who arrives to administer last rites, and later the undertaker Vernon B. Oneal, who supplies a solid bronze casket for the president. Toward the end of the piece, Breslin’s presence in the story as simultaneous narrator and participant begins to be more evident. On the fifth page, he is the “you” Fr. Huber shows to the door. At the top of the next page, he is among the “we,” presumably a group of reporters, who dodge cars to stand in Elm Street for a view of the window from which Oswald fired the fatal shots. In the phrase “Oswald and his scrambled egg of a mind,” I hear Breslin’s own diction, angry and frustrated. In the next sentence, the narrative distance collapses even more; “You stood and memorized the spot” addresses the reader directly, pulling her into the story to stand beside Breslin.
It’s really quite a fascinating, and moving, piece of writing, and I hope you’ll read it in its entirety if you haven’t already. In terms of my focus on fiction technique in creative nonfiction, what this piece demonstrates to me is the intersection of skillful use of scene with skillful use of voice.
Scene, usually employed in fiction or nonfiction to introduce objectivity, by placing a character in context, here serves to introduce subjectivity into the cold, hard facts of breaking news—Breslin’s subjectivity, the “I” narrator’s subjectivity. Breslin wrote the piece from facts and impressions he obtained from interviews just like any good reporter; he is said to have “pumped [Dr. Malcom Perry] gently but thoroughly at a small press conference” (Kluger 676). But the scene readers participate in is what Breslin imagines to have happened in ER 1. The character placed in context by scene here is not Dr. Perry but the author: the scene Breslin has conjured allows readers to intuit what matters to him, his stake in this material. His awe and horror—that an iconic leader can so easily end up so DOA in an emergency room—is dramatized through the characters in the scene Breslin wrote.
The role of voice in the piece is interestingly complex. The dialogue spoken by Breslin’s fact-based characters Malcolm Perry, Jacqueline Kennedy, Father Huber, and others gives voice to figures who would otherwise be either unknown or, in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy, of such stature as to be unreal to readers. Yet Breslin’s voice is also always present throughout the piece, even though the pronoun “I” almost never appears. When Breslin narrates the story through a character, as in the opening line “The call bothered Malcolm Perry,” or in this remark, originating simultaneously outside and inside the character, “Jacqueline Kennedy, with a terrible discipline, was not going to take her eyes from her husband’s face,” we are hearing the writer’s voice blended with a character’s inner voice. This blended voice is possible anytime a writer uses the fiction technique of close 3rd-person POV, sometime referred to as limited omniscience, or 3rd person nuanced with first.
Why bother to create such complexity of voice? Because, says James Wood in How Fiction Works, it allows readers to “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once” (11). The objective and the subjective, at the same time. Wood goes on to point out that in free indirect style [his term for the blended voice; others call it free indirect discourse] “a gap opens between author and character, and the bridge between them...simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance (11). This is another way of saying that the simultaneous presence of the author’s voice and a character’s voice in a given passage creates a fluctuating narrative distance. Wood describes the effect this way: “The sentence pulsates...toward the character and away...we are reminded that an author allowed us to merge with this character...the author’s style is the envelope within which this generous contract is carried” (18).
Among the fiction writers Wood cites as masters of this technique are Chekhov and James Joyce. For a contemporary illustration in nonfiction, let’s look at a passage of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The McCourts, at this point a family of six, are recently resettled in Ireland after a failing to thrive in America due to McCourt’s father’s alcoholism. The family lives in squalor, starving and freezing; just before they left New York, a baby, the only daughter, died; in the passage that follows, Oliver, the first of the twin sons who will also die from malnutrition and cold, is at the verge of doing so. Frank McCourt, the narrator and the oldest of the children, is about five years old.
"Eugene is sleeping under a coat on the bed. Dad sits by the fireplace with Oliver on his lap. I wonder why Dad is telling Oliver a Cuchulain story. He knows the Cuchulain stories are mine, but when I look at Oliver I don’t mind. His cheeks are bright red, he’s staring into the dead fire, and you can see he has no interest in Cuchulain. Mam puts his hand on his forehead. I think he has a fever, she says. I wish I had an onion and I’d boil it in milk and pepper. That’s good for the fever. But even if I had what would I boil the milk on. We need coal for that fire.
She gives Dad the docket [a voucher from a charity] for the coal down the Dock Road. He takes me with him but it’s dark and all the coal yards are closed.
What are we going to do now, Dad?
I don’t know, son.
Ahead of us women in shawls and small children are picking up coal along the road.
There, Dad, there’s coal.
Och, no, son. We won’t pick coal off the road. We’re not beggars.
He tells Mam the coal yards are closed and we’ll have to drink milk and eat bread tonight, but when I tell her about the women on the road she passes Eugene to him.
If you’re too grand to pick coal off the road I’ll put on my coat and go down the Dock Road.
She gets a bag and takes Malachy and me with her. Beyond the Dock Road there is something wide and dark with lights glinting in it. Mam says that’s the River Shannon. She says that’s what she missed most of all in America, the River Shannon. The Hudson was lovely but the Shannon sings. I can’t hear the song but my mother does and that makes her happy. The other women are gone from the Dock Road and we search for the bits of coal that drop from lorries. Mam tells us gather anything that burns, coal, wood, cardboard, paper. She says, There are them that burn the horse droppings but we’re not gone that low yet. When her bag is nearly full she says, Now we have to find an onion for Oliver. Malachy says he’ll find one but she tells him, No, you don’t find onions on the road, you get them in shops.
The minute he sees a shop he cries out, There’s a shop, and runs in.
Oonyen, he says. Oonyen for Oliver" (68-69).
I hope that you can feel, before we analyze this passage, the “pulsing” that Wood talks about—a felt sensation in the heart and body as much as in the mind that these lines are a-quiver with all kinds of conflicting emotions, desires, and perspectives, rasping and sometimes singing against one another. McCourt’s prose is especially “generous”; rather than only two voices—the author’s and a character’s—these sentences carry multiple voices. The story is told through the voice of young Frank—There, Dad, there’s coal.—but the long view of Frank the author is there, too, especially in lines that read as dialogue—What are we going to do now, Dad? I don’t know, son.—where young Frank asks a simple question and receives a simple answer but Frank the author, selecting these lines to stand alone, to be read objectively without subjective interpretation, lengthens narrative distance and allows irony to arise: young Frank doesn’t yet know what readers have already caught on to, that Dad never quite knows what to do, beyond holding to his pride and drinking up his wages. A similar thing happens when Mam is allowed by Frank the author to reply in what reads like direct dialogue to Dad’s assertion rendered in indirect dialogue:
"He tells Mam the coal yards are closed and we’ll have to drink milk and eat bread tonight, but when I tell her about the women on the road she passes Eugene to him.
If you’re too grand to pick coal off the road I’ll put on my coat and go down the Dock Road."
Inside these two sentences are the voices of Dad, young Frank, and Mam as well as the presence of Frank the author narrating through these three characters. Pulsing and shivering in the widening and narrowing gaps among these multiple voices the reader feels the characters’ competing desires and habitual defenses, old grudges and fresh angers.
It’s worth noting, while we have this passage of McCourt’s work before us, that in Angela’s Ashes the author’s voice not only contains all the characters, it also carries setting, action, and quite a bit of embedded dialogue. It’s such an artful intersection of scene and voice that there really is no scene in the conventional sense.
McCourt’s prose in Angela’s Ashes—the whole book is written this way—offers an extended example of the way the fiction techniques of character, POV, and varying narrative distance can create interplay between the subjective and objective, inviting irony and offering insight. You may want to protest that readers do not think about all this when they read. And you would be right in most cases. There’s no need for the non-MFA reader to be consciously aware of the stratagems by which her attention is snared and focused. The reader, caring about character, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is attuned to voice. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader picks up on the shifts in diction and syntax that create voice on a page, or several voices at once, because following voice on the page is essentially the same as following the actual speech of a real person, minus, of course, the clues of facial expression, body language, and voice timbre. The writer, working with diction and syntax, plus the context of scene and POV, mimics the shifts in register of real speech in order to render voice on the page.
Notice how this works in these lines from the McCourt passage:
"Mam says that’s the River Shannon. She says that’s what she missed most of all in America, the River Shannon. The Hudson was lovely but the Shannon sings."
In the first sentence, exhausted Angela, picking coal from the road, worried over a sick child she can’t feed or keep warm, answers her older child’s implied question with patience but no particular emotional charge. In the second sentence, the embedded dialogue tag “she says” keeps readers a little distant from her character but in the diction that follows, “missed most of all,” and the syntax, “the River Shannon” in the emphatic position at the end of the sentence, the reader slides with Angela into a sad, habitual longing she’s carried inside through years and years of suffering and loss. The third sentence is fully free indirect discourse, the character’s voice rising through the author’s. “The Hudson was lovely but the Shannon sings” sings indeed with both Angela’s romanticism and Frank McCourt’s bittersweet memory of how that trait of his mother’s ill-served her and her children.
I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate today how the melding of character and scene to voice helps generate the richness and complexity of feeling and the boldness of language that make creative nonfiction literary, and thus distinct from commercial or utilitarian nonfiction prose. I hope I’ve been able to give you some sense of how the “play” between the objective and the subjective stance—via POV choice and variation in narrative distance—allows the creative nonfiction story to “mean more than is said” just as good fiction does. In any case, I hope you are freshly convinced that good creative nonfiction should be, like fiction, concrete, embodied, and voiced.
Breslin, Jimmy. “A Death in Emergency Room One.” New York Herald Tribune 24 Nov. 1963. 1 Jan. 2011 < http://gangrey.com/2281>.
Burroway, Janet and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 7th ed. New York: Pearson, 2007.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Heath Anthology of American Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006. 1621-1638.
Karr, Mary. The Liars’ Club. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Kluger, Richard. The Paper. 1989. Online. 1 Jan. 2011.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Random House, 1996.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” The Norton Reader. 9th ed. Eds. Linda H. Peterson, John C. Brereton, Joan E. Hartman. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996. 925-941.
Sellers, Heather. The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Annotations and introduction Susan Gubar. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Selected Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
From the classroom