My heart broke further upon learning that not even photographs were as factual as I gave them credit for. Take National Geographic’s 1982 cover photo—the one of the Pyramid’s of Giza—which, as a child, was solely responsible for hurling me headlong into my mummy phase. Imagine my surprise when I learned, decades later, that those pyramids weren’t exactly as they appeared. That those pyramids were, in fact, the victims of a digital alteration. Apparently, an overzealous layout editor had crammed them tightly together so the photo could better fit the magazine’s frame.
If we can move an ancient pyramid with the click of a finger, I reasoned, who’s to say how far we’ll go?
As my grumbling grew louder, I began to realize that my frustration with facts was far less productive than my exploration of their unreliability. And I figured if anything could put truth in a headlock and wrestle it into submission, it was the essay. Not just any essay, mind you, but an essay that understood the value of the surprise attack, one willing to get the jump on truth by coming at it in a new way.
And so, weighing in at 268 pages, I humbly present to you Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction—an anthology of genre-bending essays that (at least according to the back cover copy) continually toe the line between “truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.” Rather than whining ad nauseam about pyramids and Pluto, I asked 20 of today’s most renowned writers and teachers to help me put truth on trial by fiddling with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and all the other traditional conventions essay writers hold so dear. I was seeking a new definition of nonfiction—or at least a renewed debate on the matter—and I was grateful for the legion of intrepid explorers who dared enter the wilderness alongside me. Writers like Marcia Aldrich, Monica Berlin, Eula Biss, Ryan Boudinot, Ashley Butler, Steven Church, Stuart Dybek, Beth Ann Fennelly, Robin Hemley, Naomi Kimbell, Kim Dana Kupperman, Paul Maliszewski, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Dinty W. Moore, Susan Neville, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings and Ryan Van Meter.
Not only did they embark into this wilderness by offering their essays, but they even provided helpful maps in the form of mini-essays—each of which sought to give the reader new insight into the writer’s own explorations of genre. Add to this pedagogically-practical and thematically-linked writing exercises, and readers now had a complete guidebook for this burgeoning terrain.
Taken together, these essays challenge and confound, but it’s my hope that they might also create a new space for the essay form, or at least encourage other writers to assist in mapping a landscape we know little about.
Who among us will put the pyramids back to scale or return Pluto to its planetary state? Or more importantly, who will subvert what we think we know by showing us what we don’t?