Against Technique

I’ve been asked to write about fictive techniques and how they have informed my creative nonfiction, and now that I have begun, the truth is that I can tell you just about anything. 

I could tell you, for instance, about Boy Scout Troop 20, over at Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian – I am an assistant scoutmaster, and as such, my role as a leader comes under the subject of creative nonfiction – and how when we went backpacking in the Pisgah National Forest a year and a half ago, I was afraid both my sons – Zeb, then age 14, and Jacob, 12 – though avid campers, might find it awfully difficult to hike the seven miles up to the top of Shining Rock. They hadn’t actually backpacked before, and the trail climbed 3,500 feet in elevation over those seven miles, ending at the mountaintop and 6,000 feet. Of course as their father I was afraid they’d get whipped, tired out, start whining, and I even gave them a stern lecture before we headed up the trail about the need for patience, for stamina, for not being whiners when the trail got tough.

I could tell you how I was stunned, however, when nearing the top of the mountain, me dead last, bringing up the rear and feeling as though I were about to die, I looked up the trail and saw Zeb taking the backpack off one of the younger kids who had all but given up, the boy sobbing on the trailside because of how heavy his pack was and how tired he was and how we would never get to the campsite. I watched my son put that younger boy’s backpack over his own shoulder, then look back down the trail at me and ask, “Dad, you all right?”  

I nodded, out of breath, unable to say a word, and watched him turn, head on up the mountain, two backpacks on now, one on each shoulder. He’d already pitched his tent by the time I made it to camp.  

And I could tell you about my other son, Jacob, who stunned me on this same camp-out, as well, the two of us sharing a tent at the top of this mountain on a night that got down to 11 degrees. I’d spent myself that day, so exhausted by the time I climbed into the tent with Jake that I didn’t even want to refill my canteen from the spring someone had found up there. I’d drunk all my water on the way up, and when in the middle of the night I wanted more water and knew I had none, I asked Jake if he had any.  

He said he did and got out his canteen. In the bottom of it was only a dribble, enough to wet a parched mouth. But this was my son’s water I was about to drain, and so I asked him if he wanted it.  

“No,” he said. “You take it. I can wait till morning.”  

And I drank it.

And I could tell you, too, of how every time I get up in the middle of the night for a drink of water now, I think of Jacob as I stand in the darkness at the sink, the cup to my lips, and that night in a tent, the wind on a mountaintop tracing through the trees above us while I drank the last of my son’s water, and I think of Zeb, too, and his taking that kid’s backpack and checking on me, and I am thankful and puzzled at once: Given a father like me, one who’d underestimated his kids, who figured they’d end up whining and whipped – given me, how is it they turned out like that?  

But if I were to tell you about all this, you might get the idea I wasn’t paying attention to the occasion at hand: an essay on fictive techniques and how they feed my forays into creative nonfiction. You might think I was a little nuts, even, if I were to go on anymore about my boys, and I haven’t even started in about my wife, Melanie, whom I love and still can’t figure out after 19 years of marriage, that inability to figure her out one of the great things about her I love. If I started on her, then you might even begin to look at your watches, wonder when the heck this guy will be through.  

But there’s a reason I’m not writing about what you may think I ought to be writing about: writing. And it’s this: I know nothing.  

It’s true. My writing this makes me apprehensive because, after having written five novels, two story collections and a memoir – geez, after having been on Oprah! – I believe now more than ever what Socrates said quite awhile ago: The greatest level of wisdom man can hope to attain is the realization of how little he knows.  

This notion is not only Socratic but also biblical. Proverbs 13:10 says, “Through presumption comes nothing but strife, but with those who receive counsel is wisdom.” And this notion is, too, literary: Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There’s a grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.” Steinbeck, while he was writing “The Grapes of Wrath”– he did it in 100 days – kept a daily journal and on the 18th day wrote: 

If only I could do this book properly, it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these.  

So I’m not the first one to know nothing.  

This not knowing, too, has always pervaded my writing life. Case in point: “Fathers, Sons and Brothers” began not as a memoir – that decision was made by my agent when, after the book had been turned down several times, she decided to change the title page from “Fathers, Sons and Brothers: Personal Essays” to “Fathers, Sons and Brothers: A Memoir,” the next publisher to see it then buying it – nor did it begin even as a group of personal essays. The term creative nonfiction was something I’d never heard of – I don’t even know if it existed – when the writing of the book began, way back in 1984, me an instructor of remedial English at Ohio State University, my first job out of grad school, my load five sections a quarter. I was writing my first novel then, getting up at around 5 in the morning to go to the basement and work for a couple of hours before our firstborn and my wife woke up and when the true workday would begin in all its grim earnestness: five classes of remedial English a day, five days a week.  

And then that first quarter, the head of the department – Ohio State had an entire department of remedial English, 26 instructors in all – mandated that we write an essay for the next departmental meeting so that we could feel firsthand what we were expecting of our students and so be better teachers.  

An essay? I’d been writing them all through high school, college and grad school – the M.F.A. from UMass then was made up of the same number of academic hours as the Ph.D., and so we M.F.A. people took the same classes as the Ph.D.s and wrote and were evaluated by the same standards. I’d written essays before. And my identification with my students didn’t need to be any deeper. I’d been writing every day by then for four years, had just finished my M.F.A. thesis, was launched upon a novel. Empathy for my students? Come on.  

But it was an assignment, and I had to do it.  

And it just so happened that my firstborn, by then a little over 1 and speaking quite well, upon waking would call out, “Mommy!” first thing, no matter that Melanie and I had worked out an even-steven system of tending to him each day, one day me the first to go in there, change his diaper, get him going, the next day Melanie.  

But that didn’t matter to Zeb – the same guy who picked up that smaller, sobbing scout’s backpack and carried it up a mountain, but only after he’d checked on me – because every morning Zeb cried out, “Mommy!” whether Melanie answered him or I did, a fact that, at the time, bothered me. I was Mommy in the mornings, though he’d eventually get around to calling me Daddy sometime later in the day. But the first one through his door, the first one to respond each morning, was Mommy, whether I liked it or not.  

So I wrote an essay about this strange fact of identity, of parenthood, of duty and obligation no matter the name you were given, and promptly put it away, once it had been turned in and assessed by the head of the department as “cute.” But its writing had taught me something: There were things – factual things – going on in my own life that deserved my attention as a writer; once the scrim of fiction had been raised, I was left with the fact of people I knew and loved. In the writing of it, the essay about my son calling me Mommy gave me a discovery about the truth of who I was as a parent: It didn’t matter what he called me. He needed me and loved me, and I, him. This was a point I had not thought of when I began writing it, began it as only an assignment, this odd moment out of my life worth looking at a little more closely, yielding, unbidden by me, this discovery.  

Thus began the memoir, though it would be nine years before it would be anywhere near a book, as over those nine years, I simply sat down now and again and wrote the fact of what was happening with my children, and my perceptions of that fact, and found in what I saw associations with the often numbskull things they were doing with the always numbskull things my own brothers and I did as we were growing up, and associations as well with stories I had heard of the profoundly numbskull things my father and his brothers did to one another growing up. And here were essays, true stories, all of them put in a drawer because the discoveries each yielded, about who I was and who my siblings and children and father all were, were reward enough for the writing.  

They were stories I was writing, I came to realize. Stories, but with this element woven through them: They had happened.  

Then one day I pulled an essay from the drawer, one written about a year before and simply collecting that proverbial dust. I read it, liked it, shrugged and decided to send it to a journal, Antioch Review, because I had read in a recent issue one of the essays there, about what I cannot now recall. But it seemed worthy of consideration.  

And Robert Fogarty took it. And then I started sending other essays out and writing more, the idea now finally taking shape back in the brain that perhaps this could be a book, nothing I knew would ever happen – nothing I even considered – when first I sat down to write that assignment.  

I know nothing.  

So deep is my sense of ignorance, in fact, that I make certain to do my best to pass this character trait on to my writing students, both fiction and creative nonfiction, making them repeat after me each class session my motto: “I know nothing.” I really make them say that.  

What knowing nothing means, finally, is that one must strip oneself of all notions of what he believes he knows about the world and the way it works. The majority of my students come into class with a sense of wanting to set the world straight – the world being, generally speaking, a euphemism for Mom and/or Dad. Consequently I get tons of message-laden essays and stories about how awful and bourgeois and fake everything is, the kind of stories Chekhov raged on about as being the realm of the propagandist and preacher.  

But once one gives up these notions of knowing a thing or two – all one’s prejudices about the world – one is left with a new world, which is, of course, and paradoxically, the same old one.  

Yet now it’s new terrain, undiscovered, left to this new explorer, the one who knows nothing and who now, armed with this ignorance, stupidity and tendency to stare, sees things newly and becomes, again if he is lucky, “one on whom nothing is lost,” to quote Henry James’ old line.  

What this explorer will ultimately discover is his own heart, who he is in the midst of all the know-it-alls of the world. Because this is what I am after in all this knowing of nothing: Finding out who, in fact, I am.  

Even now I can’t attribute this notion to myself, this finding of self through surrender of self, but must admit to plagiarism, as it was Christ who gave us this supreme of paradoxes: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”  

Which is why it scares me to be writing like some sort of possessor of the mystery of what it means to be a writer. It means having children in Boy Scouts, and it means a wife I can’t figure out. And it means, too, the books I have written, though they come way down the list. They are only crude maps of the worlds I’ve done my best to walk through, rough charts of the seas I’ve done my best to navigate. And still I know nothing.  

Steinbeck, by the way, on the 99th day of the 100 he took to write “The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote in his journal:  

I don’t know. I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest, but I am sure of one thing – it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.  

Then this, the most telling line of all: “Now to work on it.”  

I don’t say I know nothing to be glib or funny. Truly. It’s simply to say I’m not sure I get what the difference between fiction and creative nonfiction really is. I could yammer on for a while on the way the two overlap, how my skills as a writer of fiction have informed my endeavors in creative nonfiction and how perhaps the opposite might have occurred, as well.  

But I’m just not sure. The difference seems to me to be pretty blatant. In fiction you get to make up what happens; in creative nonfiction you don’t get to mess with what happened. And perhaps it is only the simple act just now of my placing that single verb – happen – into two tenses: what happens for fiction and what happened for creative nonfiction – that is as close as I can come to telling you what I know about the difference between the two.  

Otherwise? It’s all about scene. It’s all about detail. It’s all about one good sentence placed after another and another until, when you look up at the end of the day, you see through the pale light of late afternoon that you have pieced together a story – whether fact or fiction – that might, if you are lucky, be larger than itself. That might be, if you are beyond lucky and in fact blessed, be larger than you.  

And the path toward the discovery of a world larger than the self is arrived at through the simple act and art of paying attention, as Flannery O’Connor exhorts us in that quote about staring.  

Here is something else Flannery O’Connor had to say, this about the making of art, and an additional testimony to why I feel apprehensive about writing about what I know as a means to teach you something about writing:  

St. Thomas called art “reason making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.  

It follows from all this that there is no technique that can be discovered and applied to make it possible for one to write. If you go to a school where there are classes in writing, these classes should not be to teach you how to write but to teach you the limits and possibilities of words and the respect due them. One thing that is always with the writer – no matter how long he has written or how good he is – is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer “learns to write,” as soon as he knows what he is going to find and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished. If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him that it can ever be to his reader.  

The writer’s discovery – not that which he discovers – is integral, is the lifeblood, is the art itself. It is the discovery taking place in the heart of the author that is the experience of art.

And what can bring about that experience of discovery can only be the solitude of the writer’s life – the life, that is, away from people like me telling you how to write. Franz Kafka wrote this about the main ingredient to a successful life as a writer:  

Writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind … even that degree of self-revelation and surrender is not enough for writing. Writing that springs from the surface of existence – when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up – is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around when one writes, why even night is not night enough. This is why there is never enough time at one’s disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray. … 

It is solitude the writer needs in order to discover that which he alone can and must discover. Yet there exists a possible danger that the utter solitude required for writing, and writing well, may create. There is the possibility that a kind of myopia might set in, a sense of distorted vision that may result in looking too closely at the work at hand. Of thinking too much.  

Here is Arthur Stanley Eddington, a scientist and writer from the earlier part of this century, writing in “The Nature of the Physical World.” Please note here that I think it perfectly acceptable to slug in an essayist who thinks too much for the term scientific man in the following passage:  

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of 14 pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank traveling at 20 miles a second round the sun – a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this while hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence …Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man [or an essayist who thinks too much] to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress [or, in our case, an artistic technique] are resolved.  

Thinking too much about how to disallows movement, disallows life, and so disallows art. Witness this dinner exchange with Chekhov, from the memoirs of Lydia Avilova:  

At the table we sat side by side.  

“She does a bit of writing too,” Sergei Nikolyevich informed Chekhov indulgently. “And there’s something there … A spark … And an idea … Even if it’s very slight, there’s thought in every story.”  

Chekhov turned to me and smiled.  

“Leave out thoughts!” he said. “I beg you, please. What’s the use? One has to write what one sees, what one feels, truthfully, sincerely. I am often asked what it was that I was wanting to say in this or that story. To these questions I never have any answer. There is nothing I want to say. My concern is to write, not to teach! And I can write about anything you like,” he added with a smile. “Tell me to write about this bottle, and I will give you a story entitled “The Bottle.” Living, truthful images generate thought, but thought cannot create an image.”  

And this from Henry James, describing “an English novelist, a woman of genius,” as regards the perception that a writer needs to know, and know authoritatively, before he or she can embark upon the hidden road of a work of art:  

She was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales, of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience.

This is the wellspring of writing, whether fiction or creative nonfiction: the simple act and art of paying attention.  

It is the wellspring, I believe, because it is paying attention that can then become, in the strange and unpredictable alchemy of the mind, experience; experience is then sifted through the heart into perception; perception is then burnished by the soul into understanding; and understanding, through the colossal and unfathomable compression of the writer’s solitude and tenacity and fearless faith in the intuitive, then yields finally, like diamonds from coal, the inescapable truth of you.  

It is only through paying attention by you, the author, that art will be made. It is and always will be only your seeing, if I may paraphrase a bit brazenly Thoreau’s unintended dictum, “It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” This seemingly claustrophobic fact is, in truth – whether in the art of the essay or of fiction, and why can’t we also include poetry as well? – the single most liberating force behind the making of art.  

Henry James writes in his preface to “The Portrait of a Lady” of this apparently stultifying actuality – that there is only one portal into art – and of the human being’s false expectation, because we are, as human beings, believers, whether we like it or not, in patterns and categories and order, that there ought to be a kind of generic unity to ways of seeing, and hence a way that can be taught to all. James writes:  

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned; rather, every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher – without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist.  

And though here he is writing of fiction, it has been my own discovery as a writer of both fiction and creative nonfiction – and perhaps here is finally where the topic of this essay emerges, the influence of one form on the other – that the same holds true for both. Without the consciousness of the artist – without the unique being seeing the human condition we, all of us, see each and every day of our lives through the singular window behind which we stand – there can be no art, whether of the fictive form or factual, and the unfortunate and blessed truth of this is that there can be no teaching to you any technique for being the unique being you are. To believe in technique is to pretend there is only a certain size and shape of window that will allow us to see, and to pretend there is only one watcher behind them all. To pretend there is a technique or even a compendium of techniques that will give you you is to pretend there is only one essay and one story and one poem.  

Illustration by Anna Hall

Technique, of course, can be taught. Its result, however, is a kind of uniformity that yields not art but artifice. I know this firsthand, having been on the Fellowships in Literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago in both fiction and creative nonfiction. After reading hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, the one constant I saw that arose from them all, the one common denominator – and it was, let me assure you, a most common denominator – was the technical competence of the works at hand. They were technically competent. Nothing more, nothing less. Only competence – creative nonfiction and fiction alike, all told well, whether in any number of obtuse or conventional ways – that revealed a kind of routine verbal acumen, but that had, sad to say, no heart. No soul. Only windows all alike and all in a row, behind them merely automatons – dressed in various costumes of style, but automatons nonetheless. When the consciousness of the artist is neglected for technique, the result is often serviceable, may resemble truth, but it will never be alive.  

This is from Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher and supreme pessimist, on the folly of making reality more important than its perception by the artist:  

… waxwork figures make no aesthetic impression and are consequently not works of art (in the aesthetic sense), although when they are well made they produce a far greater illusion of reality than the best picture or statue can and if imitation of the actual were the aim of art would have to be accorded the first rank. For they seem to present not the pure form but with it the material as well, so that they bring about the illusion that the thing itself is standing there. The true work of art leads us from that which exists only once and never again, i.e., the individual, to that which exists perpetually and time and time again in innumerable manifestations … but the waxwork figure appears to present the individual itself, that is to say that which exists only once and never again, but without that which lends value to such fleeting existence, without life. That is why the waxwork evokes a feeling of horror; it produces the effect of a rigid corpse.

And yet.  

And yet, I must acknowledge that the selection of those moments from reality, those shards of the real life we lead, must be assembled into the living, breathing thing we call art. It is the solitary, “posted presence” who must piece together the disparate, the chaotic, the once concrete and now only memory, into being.  

Which, of course, leads us to our desire for technique – for how fictive techniques inform creative nonfiction, and vice versa. As I said, because we are pattern makers, we want to believe, we want to hope, that the selection process – choosing from the whole of what we see through the totally idiosyncratic aperture of who we are – is a kind of one-size-fits-all process. But it isn’t.  

Again, Henry James, this time from the preface to “The Spoils of Poynton,” on the nature of selection:  

Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which alone it is concerned, sniffs round the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone … Beyond the first step of the actual case, the case that constitutes for (the artist) his germ, his vital particle, his grain of gold, life persistently blunders and deviates, loses herself in the sand. The reason is of course that life has no direct sense whatever for the subject and is capable, luckily for us, of nothing but splendid waste … If life, presenting us the germ, and left merely to herself in such a business, gives the case away, almost always, before we can stop her, what are the signs for our guidance, what the primary laws for a saving selection …? The answer may be after all that mysteries here elude us, that general considerations fail or mislead, and that even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case. The particular case, or in other words his relation to a given subject, once the relation is established, forms in itself a little world of exercise and agitation. Let him hold himself perhaps supremely fortunate if he can meet half the questions with which that air alone may swarm.

We may be blessed, James says, if we can wrestle with half the questions that rise up about us. Yet questions still persist: How do you do it?  

What is the technique?  

The technique, alas, is that there is no technique, save for the one you yourself will hammer out.  

Here is Annie Dillard, on the nature of the impossible and necessary moment when the writer finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place – and you and I will find ourselves, if we want to write, and if we are blessed enough to persevere, precisely there many times over:  

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. [Now, if I may say this without seeming condescending, please pay attention:] He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.

The possibilities for meaning and feeling will be, please note, only suggested to you by the being looking through the aperture before you at the human scene before us all. By you, through you, to you.  

And the one element that is indispensable to realizing the meaning and feeling of the art you make will have to be – can only be – the unquenchably burning, unappeasably hungry, naggingly doubtful and exhaustively self-motivated desire to find meaning in the way you see. It is only “by the pressure of the individual will” that the window before you will be pierced; that piercing of the aperture through your will and yours only is, finally, the only technique you will ever need. “If it can be done,” to repeat Annie Dillard, “then he can do it, and only he.”  

It is the meaning and feeling you own that will give you the means to say what it is you mean and feel.

And it is this single-minded doing, finally, that is the true triumph of art, the true liberation only the artist can enjoy: the discovery that you can. Here is accomplishment, and here is reward, no matter how piecemeal the final product, no matter how intimately one will know its flaws, no matter how rough the road was to get here. “Stories and novels … are makeshift things,” writes Richard Ford:  

They originate in strong, disorderly impulses; are supplied by random accumulations of life-in-words; and proceed in their creation by mischance, faulty memory, distorted understanding, weariness, deceit of almost every imaginable kind, by luck and by the stresses of increasingly inadequate vocabulary and wandering imagination – with the result often being a straining, barely containable object held in fierce and sometimes insufficient control. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong at all. But only in the discovery of an autonomous and benevolent republic of art created through your own rigorous intellectual, emotional, spiritual and even physical effort – it takes a lot of individual will to make yourself sit on your butt day in and day out to write a book – will you ever, ever, finally, finally know how this all happens.  

Here will be your technique.  

Ursula LeGuin writes, in “Very Far Away From Anywhere Else,” of precisely this moment of understanding technique, however ex post facto it may arrive:  

Everything had to be right. You didn’t know for sure what was going to happen when you finally did get it all right: You had to get it right to find out … If [you] did it absolutely right, it might turn out to be true. To be the truth.  

We want technique, I believe, because we fear the future. We have been to the future, operate here every day, and we know it to be messy. Unpredictable. Frightening because it is out of our control. Technique, we figure, will help us in our predictions of the future. Knowing fictive techniques and how they apply to creative nonfiction will help us make what hasn’t yet been made easier to make. It will make the future neat for us and predictable and controllable, and so that future will, through the glory of technique, be less frightening and so less intimidating.  

But it is the inherent frightening and intimidating nature of the creation of art that makes the discovery the reward of art and the reward to the artist. The predictable future is the future the true artist can live without. It is precisely the unforeseeable moment of discovery that in fact fuels the desire of the true artist and hence fuels true art.  

The truth will be arrived at only through arriving at it. Only this will be how you will know technique.

And perhaps the only true way I can come near to educating you with this essay on fictive techniques and their relation to the art of creative nonfiction is simply to let you know that I am eternally looking through my own window, straining my own individual will to see. In spite of the books I have written – and I mean that truly, in spite of, as each book written gives me the foolish belief I know how to write, when damned if the next one up provides its own set of insoluble problems that will always be left up to me and me alone to solve – in spite of all those books, I, too, am continually duct-taping together my own disorderly impulses and faulty memory; I, too, am trying to find the limits and possibilities of words and trying to accord them the respect they are due.  

I am only trying to walk into the room.  

I don’t say this as a cop-out, by the way. I don’t say I am trying to figure this out as a means to shirk the responsibilities of my role as perhaps a seasoned guide as regards the limits of words and the respect due them. Rather, I tell this all to you in the hope that we will not find ourselves at the end of our educations as writers – that is, at the end of our lives – as knowledgeable but empty, as technically competent and artistically soulless.  

Here is George Eliot, writing in “Middlemarch”:  

It is an uneasy lot at best to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never be liberated from a small, hungry, shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dimsighted.

The end of this story is that my boys did precisely what I said they did at the outset of this all: Zeb carried that second backpack; Jacob gave me that water. And I, the fool that I am, did what I said I did, as well: I gave my kids a stern lecture; I stumbled exhausted into camp, the last man up; I drained my younger son’s last drop of water.  

Then we hiked another day and another, and we went home, climbed into our warm beds, and slept.  

But sore, bleary with exhaustion, I woke up thirsty in the middle of the night and went for a glass of water and had no choice but to think of my son giving me water and had no choice, as well, but to see my older son carrying a backpack up the mountain, his turning first to check on me.  

And it is only now I see the gift they have both given me. Not the look at me, Zeb’s checking on me, and not Jake’s last dribble of water. The true gift, the one I am only now realizing as I write this down right here, right now, for the purposes of this essay, is the memory I have of them giving that gift, the picture in my head of a momentary beneficence that will last as long as I have memory. And the gift back to them from me, however small, is my writing this discovery down for you, right now.  

It’s 11:35 a.m. on Thursday, August 5, 1999, and I only hope this all has been enough, because I have nothing else to tell you about the nature of fictive techniques and their influence on the writing of creative nonfiction. Only this reiteration: It’s all about scene. It’s all about detail. It’s all about one good sentence placed after another and another, as I hope this essay itself has been.  

And, finally, there is this exhortation: Go, and do not think. Disavow uninspired scholarship, timid ambition, scrupulous dimsightedness on your way to the discovery that awaits in the making of creative nonfiction. Let ignorance, inability and stupidity be the flag of the day. Pay attention recklessly. Strain to see through the window of your own artistic consciousness in the exhilarating and frightening and liberating knowledge that there is no path to the waterfall, and there are a million paths to the waterfall, and there is, too, only one path. Yours.

About the Author

Bret Lott

Bret Lott is the author of fourteen books. “On Za’atar” is from his forthcoming collection, Cherries on the Golan, Olives in Jerusalem, about food and hope and the Holy Land.

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