Monday, February 1, 2016

Ben Dolan: Crafting a Nonfiction Ending When Your Subject Isn't Dead Yet

A couple years ago, I emerged from the basement of the campus library with a copy of the latest Harper's rolled into my fist. I wasn't ecstatic, but I was a Monday-morning version of it. I had just read a piece of writing that dawned on me like a tongue of fire. Perhaps this only happens to me, or perhaps my strange behavior has something to do with that adrenalized window in late-morning when the coffee roars loudest in the circulatory system, but after I read something consequential or masterfully composed, I ache with a desire to do something about it. Tell a friend. Sponsor a hungry child. Smoke a cigarette. Yell.
     Such was my state as I rose up from the library's lower parts.
     As I imagine is similar in every campus library everywhere, backpacked, fashionable students were moving in a thousand trajectories across the first floor, cradling their laptops and thumbing their phones and bumping shoulders with their friends. A crowd of people stood in line at the Library Starbucks, blankly watching the people ordering ahead of them. On the other side of the floor, librarians moved books underneath scanners. Patrons passed library cards over the counter and smiled at the librarians' jokes. Beyond them, young men in baseball caps and women in puffy boots sat in front of computers, wading through Facebook, proofreading essays, completing online math assignments. There were so many people.
     I wanted to tell them all about what I'd just read in the back corner of the basement. Though they, too, were living their own nonfictions, I knew no one would particularly care. I certainly wouldn't, if a wide-eyed, bearded grad student walked up and asked me, Are you interested in cults? You've got to read this article.
     The article I'd finished was Nathaniel Rich's “The Man Who Saves You From Yourself.” Like so many other articles in Harper's or The New Yorker or their brethren glossies, Rich's article has, by now, been pressed into obscurity under the weight of the thousands of pages that have succeeded it. I wonder if this is the new reality of our world. Writers are not fighting against readers' apathy anymore; the new battle is against a tsunami wave of content. Evidence of this lies even here: I know this isn't a new idea, that someone else has said that the sheer volume is the writer's newest nemesis, but for the life of me I can't find who said it or where.
     It's still a wonder that anything floats to the top.
     However, two years ago, after I'd read the last word in Rich's article, I wanted to stride upstairs and stand in a corner and yell, “Laptop renters! Book scanners! Starbucks patrons! Stop what you're doing! I give you Nathaniel Rich!” I didn't do it, of course. Instead, I stood still, smiling idiotically for a minute or so, watching the throngs of students flowing in and out of the front doors. Then I went to the monolithic scanner and made an electronic copy of the masterpiece. Then I sent it to my email. Then I returned the Harper's to its lonely position on the moveable stacks in the basement, ascended the stairs again, walked out of the library and across a brick plaza to the building where my office is, ascended another set of cold, echoing, academic stairs, unlocked the door to my shared office, and Tweeted something about how great Rich's article had been.
     Hours later there were no Notifications. Apparently not even Twitter (more exactly: the fifteen people who followed me on Twitter) cared.
     But the article continued to invite itself into my consciousness. I'll teach it next semester, I thought. Or, I'll make a copy of it and give it to so-and-so—they'll love it. I found myself bringing it up in conversations, regardless of its proximity to the actual topic at hand. I told a middle-aged woman at church about it while we chopped apples for a fruit salad.
     Now I wonder what precisely was the cause of my mania. Why, as I lay in bed, did I think, even for a split-second, about some guy's article in a magazine only people who one day want to publish something in that magazine care about? What exactly made this article so delightful, so satisfying?
     First, the article is not only about cults. It takes as its principal subject a cult infiltrator (“a private investigator in San Francisco who specializes in cults”) named David Sullivan. His premise is simple, if difficult to execute: You figure out the cult's tactics, in some momentary intervention you lay the tactics bare for the idealistic aspirant, you convince the aspirant to forego the robes and chanting, they return to the world to finish college or reunite with their family. The article pursues a number of anecdotes from Sullivan's life as possibly the strangest first-responder.
     Cults, I'll admit, are inherently interesting, at least to me. The article's subject snared me. But Nathaniel Rich does something more. In between the more conventional, interview-derived sections on Sullivan's background and experiences (including a detailed account of a weekend in which, undercover, he was initiated into a particularly egregious cult in order to get information from a suspect in a crime who refused to talk to anyone but members of her cult), Rich includes separate sections set off by italics, begun like this: “She introduced herself as Stella Zrnic, a twenty-four-year-old Croatian immigrant who had recently moved to San Francisco. She knew nobody in America and hoped that Dr. Kurt Robinson might help her.” Throughout the article, we return again and again to Stella Zrnic's story, always set off by italics. It unfolds chronologically. Its connection to the rest of the article is only thematic: in the italicized portions, we hear Stella's phone calls to a doctor who, we quickly realize, is not really a doctor. He asks her to send naked photos of herself, to prove her trust in his methods. She slowly seems to be taking his bait. We are basically seeing how cult leaders work in real time. As we hear of Sullivan's successes in the non-italicized portion of the article, we're watching the opposite in the italicized parts: someone is slowly being ensnared.
     Stella's story is completely compartmentalized from Sullivan's. Sullivan is not mentioned in the italicized portion, nor is Stella mentioned outside of them. The two stories run simultaneously and, as with most braided work, the inherent promise in the writing is that they will meet. And they do. After he interprets one of her dreams, it becomes quite clear that Stella is going to fall for the nefarious Dr. Robinson. Here are the last few paragraphs of the article:
Stella Zrnic, thanking him profusely, hung up. And Stella Jelincic, a thirty-four-year-old writer who moonlights as an operative for David Sullivan, dialed her boss.
     'It worked,' she said. 'He's hooked.'
     Sullivan took down the motel's address. Then he called Kati's mother to say that he had finally captured the monster who had brainwashed her daughter.
This is it. The piece ends here. Nathaniel Rich doesn't reflect or summarize. He doesn't even include Sullivan's response to the conclusive mainstay question: So what's next for you? Instead, we are left with an image—two people collaborating against a “monster.” A man jotting down an address. A man phoning a mother.
     It's possible that I so deeply admired Rich's article because I'd just graded twenty profiles written by undergraduates. The endings of their pieces dissipated into airy alwayses and nevers and justs and hope for the futures. They put on conclusive language like 90's sitcoms cuing saxophone tracks in the episode's twenty-fifth minute.
     It's also possible that Rich's article shocked me because my own essays are not very different from my students'. My endings are about as piercing as beach balls.
     I know damn well that nonfiction must be populated by stories, facts, and characters that are exact. They must be rightly arranged, trimmed, and precise. The quotes should be actual quotes and the faces should be as close as language can get to representing the actual faces. Scenes must be imagistic and alive. I know that there must be an accumulation of some kind, whether they be plot-points or authorial insight. Yet, when it comes time to completing the arc, I resort to vague language: I zoom so far out that abstractions like love and future and humanity seem somehow descriptive. When it comes time to reflect, I reflect in the most awful ways: I tell a reader what she already knows having read my essay, or I tell her something totally new that rockets out from the piece like a landing capsule, leaving the rest of the essay floating ethereally in orbit.
     Life, however, does not lend itself to specific, concrete meaning. It confounds us in its unendingness.
     My struggle, I'm guessing, is typical for other “creative” nonfiction writers. We revise and revise again in order to make a piece of nonfiction meaningful without being pat, fictional, or vague. The latter two, I've discovered, are much easier to avoid than the former. Vagueness defines our life. Meaning, meaning—what does all this mean? Our addictions, our arsens, our conversions, our jobs, our narratives? Vague, vague, vague. Thus, so many nonfiction pieces conclude with the only conclusion worthy of a narrator not yet dead: things go on, life continues, we limp on.
     The ending of Nathaniel Rich's essay is not reflective. It doesn't attempt the acrobatic meaning. It doesn't even sound like a conclusion: “Sullivan took down the motel's address. Then he called Kati's mother to say that he had finally captured the monster who had brainwashed her daughter.” In fact, it just stops. The jig is up. But we know precisely what it means. I know what will happen after that. I know of Sullivan's heroism and his skill; Rich needn't say it.
     And that's the thing: when I reached the end, I thought of Nathaniel Rich. He'd done this thing. He'd told this story. He'd lead me here, crafted this entire yarn—the italics, the alternating fragments—for me, the reader. More than the subject, more than the anecdotes about joining cults and even dismantling a few, this ending absolutely pointed to the writer (or, possibly, the editor) who intentionally put this here, in these last sentences, for me to find.
     Sullivan's story has not concluded. Rich doesn't suggest people call their congressman or stay alert for potential cult activity. The conclusion is craft-based. It is the writer's flourish. It is the paragraph perfectly placed instead of content perfectly explained.
     Italo Calvino admitted that certain experiences in life—death, astronomy, nighttime, love—are inherently vague. Thus Calvino concluded that “The poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude, who is able to grasp the subtlest sensations with eyes and ears and quick, unerring hands.” That is, represent vagueness exactly, and do it through the work of your hands.
     Rich shaped the piece exactly, cutting and splicing content, developing patterns, and utilizing negative space. Need he say more? Pointing at Rich, I'm beginning to wonder if a successful conclusion in nonfiction need not be based in content (there so rarely are happily-ever-afters or even their postmodern antitheses: total defeat or submission), but instead a sort of structural cauterization, like snipping off a length of rope and burning its end so someone can carry it away and use it.
     In the library that day, I wanted to make an argument for perfect placement, exactitude in form. Starbucks patrons! Listen up! Hear these words of Italo Calvino:
in representing the density and continuity of the world around us, language is revealed as defective and fragmentary, always saying something less with respect to the sum of what can be experienced. 
Right?! We must concede our inability to conclude—in both our lived and written nonfictions. My students have shown me how precocious our conclusion compulsion truly is. We must write knowing that our words are not enough to convey all meaning. We must render the experience. For me, someone struggling to squeeze meaning out of my own personal essays, this meant that my life (or anyone's life) didn't have to mean. Some essays and creative nonfiction, instead, just snip life off at each end and melt the strands into a single unit, no bows required. When it's done well, it's wildly useful, sometimes even beautiful in that utility.
     For yea the flood relents not, my friends. The digital content pours over us; the various colors of thought and miraculous styles are so thoroughly mixed that the flood seems a homogenous brown. Even the library itself is caught: I stood, at that moment, in the liminal space between the stacks of distinct and singular but rapidly aging books and the rows of black computers with glowing white screens, ever new.
     I did not say any of this at the library that day. I did slam the scanner lid with a dramatic vigor. I did walk out of the library like an undercover heirarch. I told no one of what I'd learned. That conclusion, I realize only now, belonged in an essay (not a tweet, not a hollering library proclamation) about Nathaniel Rich, Italo Calvino, and the need for formal exactitude when ending an essay.


Ben Dolan received his MFA from the University of New Mexico. He lives and teaches in Albuquerque.


  1. Love this, especially "No bow required"-Kaili

  2. Nice piece, in and out of Rich. Yet I wonder if the point is, as Doctorow said, writing and reading are forms of intimacy not capable of being shared with the mob. Their point is their privacy just as it was for you. TL

  3. I've got engulfed with the article as well. Cannot wait when I open the page to read it! Thanks for sharing the opportunity to broaden the horizons! :)

  4. It seems to me that the only meaning worth sharing is the significance that it IS shared meaning, that as humans we all co-experience similar, if not identical, meanings. Using either fiction or non-fiction words, or any art form for that matter, to bring that shared meaning into our collective hearts' consciousness illumines us all. Thank you, Ben, for shining a light into our collective hearts, making the illumination speak compassion.