Imagination in nonfiction

In these innovative if confusing times, when talk of hybrid forms and genre blending abounds, the temptation for nonfiction writers to make their works as novelistic as possible is huge. Since fiction still enjoys greater literary cachet and status than nonfiction, the temptation is understandable. I would caution, however, against borrowing one particular technique from our fiction-writing brethren: to imagine on the page a scene unfolding, moment by moment, that one did not witness firsthand. I find this practice dubious for two reasons.

My first objection, commonly voiced by others, is that it can raise the suspicions and doubts of literalist readers, who legitimately wonder: “How did he/she know that?” Still, I can envision a day, not too far off, when such infractions against traditional nonfiction practice will come to be accepted (however regrettably) as prosaic license.

My second objection, less frequently articulated, is that writers rarely do it well. Such scenes are almost invariably imagined perfunctorily, so that they would not satisfy the standards of a first-rate piece of fiction.

To give an example: My nonfiction graduate students are often drawn to writing about the lives of their grandparents, perhaps from a desire to grasp the wellsprings of their own characters and fill in the contexts of their personal stories. So they might imagine their grandparents’ hard lives in the Old Country, the passage to America and the difficult adaptations that ensued. My students usually don’t know that much about their grandparents’ lives, so they finesse the details with a combination of imaginative speculation and research. A dictionary gives them the words for “spatula” or “hoe” in Danish, which they insert happily where necessary. But the effort to bring these stories alive is often doomed from the start by a pious idealizing of their grandparents, a sort of ancestor worship—a reverent sympathy for sufferings and privations that regrettably translates into an unwillingness to expose the mixed motives, contradictions and flaws of their elders the way a skillful fiction writer would. Even when a saccharine fablelike approach can be avoided, the results are usually wooden and unconvincing. We have only to compare these hybridized attempts to the robust fictions of O.E. Rølvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” and Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” or Jan Troell’s epic films “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” to see how much specificity and drama is missing.The problem is not that my students’ stories are imagined; it is that they are thinly imagined.

I did have one graduate nonfiction student who managed to find enough information about what happened to her grandparents, through interviews and library research, to write a compelling narrative about their escape from Nazi Germany and subsequent dislocations. It was a vivid, suspenseful, truthful account, but she also insisted on putting in invented details: someone blinked in the hot sun, looked down at his shoe instead of replying or gulped several times when drinking from a ladle. These banal, portmanteau descriptions did not measure up to the factual vivacity of the rest, and I advised her to take them out, though, at last reading, she was still stubbornly holding onto them.

Other examples may be gleaned from the increasingly popular practice known as “immersion reporting.”A journalist with literary ambitions is writing a book about, say, true crime or the lives of rural poor. He has hung out with his subjects at length, and now he writes a scene about an unemployed construction worker sitting on a porch, talking to the sheriff, who has come by to inquire about this man’s iffy nephew. The author sees in his mind’s eye the unemployed man rocking back and forth, and he puts that detail in; then he sees the man scratching his nose or clearing his throat, and puts that in, too. (“He cleared his throat, but there was still a residue of phlegm.”) These details are the equivalent of what screenwriters call “beats”; they’re facile placeholders, conventional enough, but are they truly necessary? Do they bring us insight into this specific character, or are they so common (who hasn’t scratched his nose?) as to tell us little except that the writer is trying to get a purchase on the moment until something better comes along? Moreover, these beats seem to come from the stylistic universe of popular, middlebrow fiction rather than fiction of a higher order, like that by Dickens, Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño or Elizabeth Bowen. Ostensibly, a detail like “He scratched his nose” is inserted to make the scene come alive, but does it work? Doesn’t it, rather, intrude a further veil of concretized abstraction? That may sound like a logical contradiction. What I mean is that excessive faith in sensory details—especially if they seem pasted on instead of organically arising from the characters and the scene— can take us further away from the heart of the matter.

The technique is even more problematic when the nonfiction author takes us into his subjects’ minds. Remember, for example, the justifiable flak Edmund Morris received when he wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan that included an interior monologue of young Ron sitting on a park bench.

A student of mine spent years in the company of ex-gang members in Los Angeles, who kept being thrown back in jail for violation of parole, and was documenting the effects of this cycle on their struggling families. She was writing a brilliant book, but something compelled her to muck up the beginning of it with an imagined scene of her protagonist, Luis, in jail awaiting his release. The reader was treated to such passages as “Luis watched irritably as a fly buzzed through the cell’s grimy, single-paned window” and “Most of last night, he felt as if tiny firecrackers were lighting and relighting themselves right under his sternum.” Now, the fly I could live without, because it doesn’t individuate Luis as a character to know that he disliked pests, but the firecrackers under the sternum seemed to me really presumptuous; the reporter, an otherwise highly reliable witness, was crawling right into the poor man’s skin, or pretending to, and had no business being there. She had every right to describe, for example, his cell, which she might plausibly have learned about from her source or elsewhere, and even his routine of pushups in the cell, because those details were externally, objectively verifiable—but somatizing his dilemma with fireworks in his sternum was a piece of self-indulgent imaginative transport. (She took it out.)

It’s easy to invent shallow scenes and imagine glib interior monologues:The fact that we can see things in our minds’ eyes doesn’t necessarily make them literarily valid.The harder imaginative act for nonfiction writers is seeing the pattern in actual experience and putting it into some sort of order so that what seemed random is given narrative significance and symbolic resonance. Understanding is thick imagining.

The nonfiction writer with a story to tell always has another option at hand besides writing scenes with dialogue: he can describe the physical setting and summarize the narrative action briskly and forcefully. This was the preferred storytelling technique for centuries: see, for instance, the compressed tales of Stendhal or Kleist. So when it comes to inserting a scene in a nonfiction work that you didn’t observe directly, my advice is: Don’t do it.

But if you are going to do it, you’d better make damn sure that you do so artfully and discreetly—preferably by first telling us straight out that you’re imagining it.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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