Recently while writing about some past issues, I rendered my family members as characters on a page. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, and writing all five-hundred words of it left me emotionally black and blue, a feeling to which one might apply the verb phrase “wallowing in self pity and disgust,” and culminating in a small mental breakdown during which I declared – since obviously nothing was wrong with me – that the entire genre of nonfiction was to blame: “Nonfiction is amoral!” I wrote to a friend. “Nonfiction is immoral. No one should ever write nonfiction!!” I was ready to throw down the gauntlet to John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, as well as everyone else, all the way back to those Neanderthals who told stories about their hunts on cave walls. “Or maybe I’m just being melodramatic,” I added, in a rushed whisper. “Probably the latter” was the reply.
I had just embarked on the second half of a two-week long writing course with David Shields, and couldn’t understand why I felt this way—I read Reality Hunger just a few weeks prior and agreed with it so fully that I speckled the margins with smiley faces, exclamation points, and even the occasional heart.
There are no facts, only art. Beautiful words are not true. Something can be true and untrue at the same time. Genre is a minimum-security prison. The genius of memory is that it is choosy, chancy, and temperamental. All the best stories are true. Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Yes, I get it: the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurry (if it exists at all); memory (not to mention the initial perception) is flawed; and, anyway, what we are trying to do is make art, not a catalogue—I agree with, and feel these things, deeply. So why, as Shields phrased it, was I feeling this objection “on [my] own nerve endings”? I’m not completely certain. But I suppose that for me, a mainly fiction writer, the moral decisions we all make in any act of writing became particularly acute when I started using people I love as characters.
D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is about the suicide of 16-year-old Las Vegas resident Levi Presley. In his NY Times book review, Charles Bock claims that doctoring certain “facts” in the book for poetic license (such as conflating the dates of important events) “damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice.” D’Agata’s counterargument, as he presented it at the April 2012 McNally Jackson Event, is that after the book was published, he received a letter from Levi’s parents. “They considered the book a gift to Levi,” said D’Agata. “That, I felt, was the only moral test I had to pass. I was in the field and was doing that work so only I know where that line is. We do have to trust writers that they will do that work, find that line. We can’t impose that line on them.” In today’s overly litigious and information-driven society, that relationship of trust between writer and reader can easily be broken. But the discomfort with (and dialogue about) writing fact-based works is a good sign, because writing, like living, is a series of moral negotiations. There are a lot of questions that a writer asks herself as she puts pen to paper, questions that will be asked of her later by those who read her work. Perhaps one of the most important of these is: Am I doing the right thing? The tricky part is that we may not always know the right answer to that; and we may sometimes be wrong.
In “One Nation, Under the Weather,” her essay defense of illness memoir, Lauren Slater states: “I write to say, you are not the only one.” Though I still feel uneasy when I write about my family, I try to remember that I am not an outsider—I am writing as one of them. Down to the genetic level, we are truly in this together. Viewed through this lens, writing nonfiction could be the most compassionate form of all. I will try to remember D’Agata’s and Slater’s poignant statements as I write. Whether our works are fiction, nonfiction, or (more likely) something in between, they should be nothing if they are not offered as gifts, with great kindness and care.