Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kate Schmitt: STATIC SIGNALS: Alternative Structures in Nonfiction

Lately I’ve been concocting a theory about the relatively dramatic shifts within the creative nonfiction genre. Not that these types of changes are new; from the personal reportage that began as a way for journalists to convey more adequately the horrors of the Civil War (as opposed to simply recounting battle outcomes and numbers of the dead) to the New Yorker writers of the 1940s who wrote themselves into their pieces and felt it perfectly justified to create composite characters (Joseph Mitchell’s essay “Up In the Old Hotel” is a good example), the agreed-upon rules of nonfiction have changed over time—and continue to be controversial. But my thought is this: perhaps the shifts and development of the nonfiction genre can be seen as a way to address the need to create, in the words of essayist Susan Griffin, “another knowledge”—so that writers change the way material is read and subjects understood by transforming the mode of presentation.

Information theorists use the term “noise” to describe any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quality or quantity of information. Borrowing this idea may be useful, since a variety of contemporary nonfiction structures seem to strategically incorporate “noise.” The lyric essay is a prime example, making use as it often does of short sections separated by white space. As Brenda Miller writes in “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” the lyric essay “has been called disjunctive, paratactic, segmented, sectioned.”  At the beginning of a lyric essay, readers are set afloat on a sea of seemingly unconnected statements. It is only as they continue reading that the pieces begin to accrue meaning—meaning which is deepened by the white space that allows, and even requires, a certain element of participation from the reader.

A good example is Eula Biss’s essay “The Pain Scale,” one of the first I remember encountering. The essay is a meditation on pain, inspired in part by a physician’s request that she rate her chronic back pain on a scale from one to ten (one being no pain and ten being the “worst pain imaginable”). The impossibility of rating one’s pain will be obvious to anyone who’s been in this situation, but in the essay the difficulty is expressed in such compelling and expansive ways that the very conception of pain must be reconsidered. Biss uses the scale itself as part of the structure, moving from one through ten, so the small segments of text are further contextualized. But in keeping with Miller’s description, the essay often relies on gaps that the reader may enter in order to not only consider the gradations of pain, but also the crucial missing elements of the scale and the inherent political connotations of rating one’s pain. For example, having already introduced Dante in the first section—“The deepest circle of Dante’s inferno does not burn. It is frozen. In his last glimpse of hell, Dante looks back and sees Satan upside down through the ice” (Biss 29)—Biss then moves on to point out the problem of the pain scale being limited by one-dimensionality and its inability to take into account the length of time one has been in pain. Once again, she invokes hell:

The pain scale measures only the intensity of pain, not the duration. This may be its greatest flaw. A measure of pain, I believe, requires at least two dimensions. The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.

So at first encounter, and during the first page or so of reading, a lyric essay makes use of disjunction, a form of “noise,” and incorporates disparate strands of narrative, information, and reflection. In this way, the form becomes participatory, allowing writers access to a wider variety of discursive modes and subject matter, and requiring the reader’s involvement in the analytic process.

However, with each subsequent encounter with a particular form, readers find similarities and adapt by constructing systems of interpretation; so as new structures become familiar and interpretive strategies become routine, writers must once again imagine new architectures. (I would add here that I see this as parallel to the development of poetry—from Walt Whitman’s free verse and T.S. Eliot’s fragmented lines combined with conventional forms (notably the sonnet) to e.e. cummings’ poems that break not only lines but also words and Susan Howe’s poems in That This, which are so fractured they are partially unreadable and rely on the book’s introduction to make sense.)

At this point in time, chronicling the variety of forms could go on for some time. Jenny Boully’s The Body is an essay completely constructed from footnotes. It can be an unsettling narrative to read, since one must imaginatively create the primary text by reading the secondary information a writer would deem worthy of a footnote. For example, the eighth footnote reads: “The confessions denoted here are lies, as it would be senseless to list my true regrets. The true regrets are indexed under the subject heading ‘BUT EVERYONE DIES LIKE THIS,’ found at the end of the text” (4). We understand from this (and the previous footnotes) that the primary text is likely a personal narrative that explores a relationship with a poet, as well as perhaps others. Boully does occasionally give the reader small hints for how to read her essay in her footnotes. In footnote nine, she writes, “Given this information, the definition of ‘footnote’ is of particular interest to the overall understanding of ‘bedlam.’ Consider, for instance, this denotation: n.2. Something related to but of lesser importance than a larger work or occurrence” (4). While directly addressing the form she uses, this footnote—nor, I think, the accrual of footnotes—does not provide a routine strategy for interpretation. The Body, then, might simply be a consistent and varying continuation of noise.

There are too many other examples to mention—Ann Carson’s “The Glass Essay” comes to mind, since it looks like a poem but “thinks” like an essay, turning over an idea and coming at it from many angles, careful with language but privileging the conceptual. Similarly, Eliot Weinberger’s “The Dream of India” is not a typical lyric essay, but does rely on short segments to come together to create the whole “dream” of the place. Perhaps it is our dreams that are the best model for this noise I’ve been describing, complicating our vision and insisting on constantly creating new architectures. Insisting, too, that we find new models of interpretation every time our internal noise is altered. 

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Works Cited:

Biss, Eula. “The Pain Scale.” The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Michael Martone and Lex Williford. New York: Touchstone, 2007. 28–42. Print.

Boully, Jenny. The Body. Athens: Essay Press, 2007.

Griffin, Susan. “Red Shoes.” The Next American Essay. Ed. John D’Agata. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2003. 303–316. Print

Miller, Brenda. “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” Tell It Slant. Ed. Brenda Miller and Susan Paola. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 233–234. Print. 

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Kate Schmitt earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Houston. She is a visual artist as well as a writer, and her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poets, for which she won an Editor’s Choice Prize. She has also published her visual and written work in literary journals, including Third Coast, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Literature. She grew up in New Hampshire and Hong Kong and now lives in Florida, where she teaches creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.

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