Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Writing, Non-fiction

Non-fiction writing is inherently dishonest.

Journalism schools teach and preach objectivity, to various degrees of success -- some are better than others. Bias is felt more than seen by readers, though, technically, the Pretty Word Workers of America cover their bases well. The exception might be Fox News – they don’t care enough to pretend, or maybe by preaching to the choir they don’t have to. If you have right  ideas, why stoop to prove them?

(The New York Times pretends to not be liberal, but they are, you can feel this can’t you? – but they try harder, so they don’t rise to the Fox level of dishonesty.)

Still, all this is sound and fury that means nothing. In the long run, the “marketplace of ideas,” like the casinos of Vegas, will win every time. Truth will out – it becomes a physical thing with time. Even Fox will eventually become the journalistic parachute pants of the ought generation – a goofy memory of simpler times.

(Or, it might end up being the background noise of common belief for a new generation – but then Milton would be wrong and he wasn't -- being Old Testament by both nature and birth, he could only tell the truth, usually in a beautiful but tragic way.)

For all this, Journalism has at least the patina of true – the science, the stated goal of objectivity. The criticism is that it’s not – not that it shouldn’t be. Other forms of non-fiction have a different problem.

When we write about what we physically experience in life – our memories, thoughts and actions, we shade, omit, distract and lie in order to shape the words and to say our story. We leave important things unsaid and set the stage with words to present selective facts in the order and light that we want others to view us. Since we are the senses others have to use to read our words – they see what we want them to see, and when we avert our eyes they don’t.

Like a reality show with months to cull their 24/7-camera coverage – we choose the things we say in order to tell a story that our minds make up. No amount of brutal honesty can change this – we develop our pitch and fine-tune it through examples and snippets that illustrate or illuminate the pieces of our lives that show us in the way we want to be seen. Even the ugly and deformed are used to shape –wither through a strange pride, or need for pity.

When we show the facts for you to see, like the dark matter of the universe, most of the stuff is hidden by omission. The truth is often simple, at least to the writer, and by putting representations of the whole into simple bites, the writer is telling you his truth – at least if he’s doing it right. The problem is in the truth of the big chunk that’s missing – the gigantic elephant of facts that sits in the living room of the story, smoking quietly in the corner.

What did the wife see? The Lover? The guy whose job you earned, but he thought stolen? What would they say about your truth? In fiction, it doesn’t matter – the truth is what you say it is, there is no pretense of a truth.

Non-fiction has fact checkers – hired people who go through your life, checking with friends and enemies for the truth of place and time. They don’t go into what you didn’t say – the things left out. They don’t go into the staging of your words – the platform of facts, both said and unsaid, that you use to place your truth on for display to others.

There is another type of dishonesty -- manipulation in order to preach or convince. This is the selective telling of a tale in such as way as to deny that it is the tale. In poetry this works well, in fact a good poem should be read with a bunch of different meanings – the more the better. Manipulative non-fiction can be read into – slightly below the story line of facts is a subtle other story that seeks to convince the reader of another truth – a truth more true than true. A straightforward narrative of facts becomes a satire – a story of love becomes a list of wishes. When found in fiction it adds depth, in non-fiction, not so much.

We also tell the truth in order to make a point we don’t have the balls to make in fiction – we bury in the obvious, small truths that get slipped over by casual readers. Things we want others to know but don’t have the balls to say we make small in big things, then hide it in plain sight.

Memory is also faulty in non-fiction tales. When a father asks a child to tell them a tale from childhood – something they did together, the stories seldom match. The past is seen by memories enhanced through photos and tall-tales that have been rounded off by the constant telling.

And then there is history -- imagine the disappointment after years of reading State approved U.S. history books, and then reading Howard Zinn's -- same truth, different results -- not even in the ballpark -- both true. And  J. Edgar had an official biography that didn't mention he wore a dress.

Non-fiction is as true as the teller of the tale. As honest as the attempt, it will always be colored by the tale itself. It’s more like structured fiction than truth -- much in the same way we interpret life when we just walk around not paying attention.

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