Monday, October 27, 2014

A Kindness of Rules

In the summer, back when all things seemed possible, Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold offered me and a couple of other essay-writing types to develop something of a recurring column for Essay Daily. I was in the middle of reading some deeply weird stuff to teach for my nonfiction class this fall and I wondered, is every bit of writerly logic fair game in nonfiction except the truth?” I found a few people willing to talk to me about that question. I sent them this:

I cannot tell if nonfiction has fewer rules or more than other genres. While nonfiction has the big “rule” (Do not lie) it doesn’t have the history of convention that poetry or fiction seem to have. Any fictional piece without plot or character is experimental. Use white space, says the poem. Make the poem turn! Lyric is sonic, says the poem.

If nonfiction draws on the conventions of the other genres—uses scene, dialogue, white space, turn, then perhaps essay writing is just a hybrid genre. But when it breaks the rules of its borrowed genres, is it creating its own genre? For instance, when I asked a bunch of writer-friends about breaking the writing rules, they noted egregious examples like writing from two points of view using second person for both POVs or breaking the veil and talking directly to the reader, jumping topics mid-stream, banging too hard on the metaphorical nail, or foregoing narrative entirely. I love the breaking of rules but I also love the acknowledgment and recognition of them. Without the rules, where does one begin to write instead of just drool upon the page?

Rule-breaking is part of the writer’s job. As is rule making about rules, about convention, about genre and about structure. What structures do you use to give your essays form and substance? When does weird get too weird?  What rules do you use just so you can break them later? What does rule-breaking artistic-wise mean about the big rule—“Nonfiction is the truth”? 

[David Legault responds to these questions first, and then breaks the soapbox rules by asking me another question. So, I get him back with another question after that. ]

David: I believe the rules are more or less indistinguishable from audience and expectation: the rules exist to provide an instant relationship with the reader, to help them understand what they're getting into, how to decide whether or not it's something they want to read. Although our focus is creative nonfiction, I think it's easiest for me to wrap my mind around the rules of genre: I know when I pick up a celebrity memoir, for example, that I can most likely expect a humble beginning to meteoric rise to hitting rock bottom before emerging at the end triumphant. I know when I pick up a romance novel I can expect a meet-cute, a misunderstanding that keeps the couple apart before, finally, love conquers all.
With the typical "rules," the biggest risk is turning off a reader, a bait-and-switch, getting the audience to put down the work when they decide it's not for them. It's a reader feeling misled, or challenged in a way that wasn't enjoyable, or wanting escapism and being faced with reality. With the essay it becomes more problematic. Although the rules you speak of are often impossible to define, nonfiction has its inherent golden rule: Always tell the truth. Though I'd like to argue you can lie in fiction or poetry just as easily as CNF, the genre's tricky relationship with "truth" lets readers perceive lying as morally questionable instead of just aesthetically so. Note the recent proliferation of works cited pages in memoirs, in essay collections: as if it's a lack of verification that makes the words less authentic. 
Of course there are other rules to follow other than simply telling the truth. David Foster Wallace wrote that the best nonfiction shows us "how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways." The arrangement can set the rules or expectations: starting with an image from childhood will give me different expectations than, say, research on the current market values for Beanie Babies.

In any case, though I don't think I know exactly what the rules are, I think they are established by the order and arrangement. This is useful to know when we're trying to break them.

As to why I think it's worth breaking these rules, I think it's important to think not only of the risks the writer takes by breaking the rules, but the risks of following them. I think following the rules too closely will generate work that's too predictable, that lacks any sort of challenge. I'm reminded of a books arts project I saw last year in Minneapolis where an artist combined segments of five separate romance novels into one coherent text: basically the names and occupations of the male love interests were the only things that changed. With the essay, I think it's a long tradition of predictability and rule-following that have gotten us so closely aligned with the five paragraph bullshit found in freshman comp classes.

If rule breaking risks labeling us as liars, as bad people instead of merely bad writers, I think it is ultimately worth it if the alternative is a cookie cutter structure and predictability. I think rule breaking is what allows for surprise, for vulnerability, for what makes the essay stick with us long after our initial reading.
(Note: I'm not sure what structure you had in mind for this, but I want to ask a follow up question here, Nicole): I am curious as to your thoughts on texts that give themselves clearly defined rules: A rigid form or structure, a specific conceit, a second person narrator, etc.  Why do we as writers set up these rules for ourselves, only to break them? How does this change the reading experience? I've been working my way through B.J. Hollar's book Dispatches from the Drownings which tells us up front that 75 percent of the stories are taken from actual news stories and the other 25 percent are fictionalized. These type of rules make for a radically different reading experience, but I can't quite wrap my mind around the why.

[I like questions. I like David. It would be impossible for me not to respond.] To me, I like to make the rules so that my language doesn't runneth over like so much blathering 14 year old diaries. Without some sort of frame/structure, my writing is like a milk. A milk for which there is no cup. Sticky and eventually smelly. But you're right—the rule of cup is only one kind of rule. The rule of genre another. The rule of lying yet another. I do think they get caught up and messy and likely to make mixed milk metaphors. I'm glad that you brought up Hollars' Dispatches. He lays out the rules so explicitly in the introduction that the introduction itself is the fulfillment of the book's proposal. Why he writes the rest of the book is a fascinating question that is, I think, what makes the book readable. Why write? Why read? I kept reading, not so much for the rule-breaking, since he already told me he was breaking rules, but for the continual tug of that question, why am I reading this? Why do I care? Because, as with my milk metaphor, I wanted to see how Hollars kept his milk together—especially when writing within the confines of a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century cup. 

[Meta here: I ask David a host of additional questions, suggesting that this conversation could go on for a while. It does. But not forever.] So the extreme poles seem to be that on the one hand we have the problem of the jacket copy/genre label misguiding us and on the other hand, as in Hollars' book, an abiding desire to make sure we the reader doesn't feel misguided.  In the middle, is there a space for the reader to enjoy the rule breaking, or is it just we writers who enjoy it? And, as for rule-making, are there rules you see on other books you've read or rules that you've created for yourself that seem particular to nonfiction/essay writing? 

[David does not break the rules of etiquette—he responds to my harassing questions with this:] What I found to be so interesting in Dispatches was how, against my will, I felt compelled to try identifying fact from fiction, to decide which stories had been fabricated. Even when the writer claims no to remember, I still found myself articulating my own rules for story versus essay: this one must be true because it's too similar to the previous story and a fiction would try to differentiate; This one is false because it seems more detailed, the characters more fleshed out than one could get from a newspaper clipping. Clearly he had some cool photos which he needed stories to fit. etc. I found myself overly concerned with the was my own uncertainty (not to mention how much I hate this approach to reading yet could not stop myself) that pulled me through: my need to find patterns, to decode, to genre-fy.
But that's where the joy of rules (and rule-breaking) comes for me as a reader. I need to be in on it. I need to be able to acknowledge the rules, to understand the structure, if I'm going to play the writer's game. So maybe it's again back to audience and expectations. An example  I'm thinking of is the fantastic book-length essay, Coal Mountain Elementary, that takes sets of different nonfiction—testimony from mining disasters, newspaper accounts of the same events, and The American Coal Foundation's curriculum for school children—and assembles them in such a way to portray a brutal account of mining industry and culture. The rules are there from the get-go (the material Mark Nowak takes from is listed on the back of the book), and though it's all found material without any direct author insight or commentary, you see the writer's presence and opinion on every page. That's the sort of rule-breaking I like: to sort that exists in the white space, in the arrangement. Another great example is Eula Biss's essay "The Pain Scale," which gets its structure from a few basic rules: it takes a scale of zero to ten and fills it with corresponding stories of pain. Of course it breaks its own rules by introducing a narrative continuity, but then again, how can you know what a seven feels like without first having the two's and threes? How can ten not be an accumulation of lesser pains before it? We see how the scale normally works (as a mean of identification, of communication between patient and doctor) and how Biss uses it as guideposts to her own narrative through a bit of genre-bending.
I feel like this repurposing of other forms--whether a pain scale or a Google Map or even footnotes--works so well because they both inform our reading and also subvert expectations. The catch is that the content should be in some way mimetic of its form or else it quickly gets gimmicky. Usually in writing the form comes first--writing to the constraints until it starts to limit our words or message, which seems the perfect time to break away.

As for my own writing, the rules tend to be more for generative purposes, though sometimes the form or exercise makes it to the final version. Probably the one I use most often is by writing rough drafts entirely in single sentence paragraphs, which helps me to put more focus on language and rhythm (though it also gives me a tendency to jump around a lot more, which is sometimes good but sometimes simply incoherent if you're not inside my brain).
Another question for you:where or when do rules start getting in the way? Where are rules more likely to stray into gimmick or cliche? Even when our goal as writers is to break rules or norms, they usually need to be present in the writing before we can subvert them, so how to do so gracefully in our own writing?

[In my initial response to David, I went off about narrative and how it’s a rule unto itself but then I decided I really spend too much time trying to define narrative and too much time trying to define lyric so I turned back to David’s original question, which was the right thing to do.]
I love what you say about Biss breaking the rules of the "Pain Scale" by introducing narrative. As with you, rules for me tend to be generative ones, which can work well for a lyric essay but when you bring in the big gun of narrative, some of those rules collapse to get to the story.  Narrative is so seductive. It's also not really my thing. Writing "straight narrative" quashes my language. I feel like a big jerk when I write on student essays, "Include a scene here," when I am myself so loathe to create scene myself. Getting a hermit-crab type essay to work for ten pages is one thing—it's something else to try to get it to work for a book-length project. Then maybe it becomes gimmicky. Ander's Harvard Outline essay is great because an outline is a knowable-within-a-few pages form. And, of course, he's breaking the form of the outline all along. His first rule is to break the rules of the form. In that essay, Ander, by using a well-known, received form, can break it right from the beginning. D'Agata, in About a Mountain, establishes that he's going to break the rule that “numbers are our the one true fact” right off the bat when he quotes lawmakers playing fast and loose with numbers on C-Span. 

Here's another question. How can you prepare a reader that you will break rules without breaking them from the get-go?  Big rules like changing point of view in the middle of a paragraph or the middle of a sentence, eschewing imagery or eschewing narrative entirely, changing genre mid-stream. These things seem gimmicky, like you say, sometimes can be effective but perhaps only as a referendum on tradition, or craft, or MFA program writing. 

[David bears with me and my incessant questions. On the one hand, I have broken the rules of this project. I’m supposed to ask the initial questions and then let the writer respond and then be let off the hook. On the other hand, now that I’ve got David on the hook, I don’t want to let him go.  But I do, finally, let him have the last word.]
That's a great question, how to plant the seeds of rule breaking without starting out in that mode. I think the best example I can give is one you've already mentioned: D'Agata's About a Mountain works that way for me, but only in the sense that it starts out feeling like a very traditional narrative and ends up going to some remarkable places. I think what makes it work for me is that the story starts and ends in a personal place. Opening up in a first-person scene (at least on first read) feels like it's there to "include a scene" as you say before getting to it's real, more journalistic goals. Like he's covering a more general topic, but finding a way to make it feel personal. However, as the story goes on it veers further and further away from the expectation, and the personal factors (all the way to the suicide) suddenly click in as the focus of the entire essay. That we needed to see these larger issues of toxic waste storage, of the impossibility of keeping up with water supplies, with the impossibility of communicating with a future we know won't speak our language, that The Scream is the only message that we believe could last...all of these "global" concerns suddenly explain or represent the struggles of depression that result in suicide.

Back to the original question, I think that essay, in many ways, functions as a mystery novel: the clues are there all along, but don't make sense until the very end. I think it's telling that the first part of the book reads as a very traditional take on environmental concerns, and only once we feel comfortable with that does the book start veering away into more lyrical directions.
I think it feels less gimmicky in this way, or at least more accessible. I think what makes the book work so well is that it relies (or at least pretends to) on traditional narrative. I can think of other nonfiction books I really appreciate that are clearly rule breakers from the get-go (Reality Hunger or even D'Agata's follow-up The Lifespan of a Fact) that are able to do great and interesting things, but that don't seem to sustain themselves in the same way because the structure doesn't hold interest in the same sort of way. Maybe the best way to say it is that I can see my dad and his friends reading About a Mountain, where the latter two titles seem the sort of thing that will be most interesting to people inherently interested in the idea of nonfiction and discussing its implications. The sort of thing read and discussed at-length in an MFA workshop, but maybe not at the Thursday night book club. Not to pick on those two titles (which, again, I greatly admire), but their structure doesn't invite a casual readership in the same  way a traditional narrative can. I think that is the fear with specific rules on a book-length level,: finding ways to use the structure while not become too gimmicky or niche. 

Perhaps it can be a bait-and-switch: following the rules and playing nice long enough to get a reader invested, to gain their trust, then break off into another odd direction. If they've followed you this far, there may be more of a willingness to venture off the beaten path.

[I am grateful to David for this conversation. See. I can’t even stick to my own rules and let him have the last word. But it’s true. I am grateful and I want him to know.]

David LeGault's most recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in DIAGRAM, The Sonora Review, and Continue? The Bossfight Books Anthology. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he is working on a book about obscure collections.

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