Nonfiction in First Person, Without Apology

In his introduction to the 1989 The Best American Essays, Geoffrey Wolff tells a story about how, in writing an essay on King Lear as a young boarding school boy, he could not help but narrate some of his own misunderstandings with his Duke of Deception father to illustrate his sympathy with Cordelia. Wolff’s teacher wrote the customary “who cares?” in red ink on his essay, insisting, as we were all taught, that when one writes nonfiction, it is necessary to “take facts in, quietly manipulate them behind an opaque scrim, and display them as though the arranger never arranged.” Reading Wolff’s story made me think of my childhood in Cleveland, and my decision, at the ripe age of five, to devote my life to becoming a writer. I remember thinking, as I watched my parents’ marriage dissolve, and I stayed up late staring out the window at the acorn tree in the yard and listening to the cranes at the city dump two blocks away scoop up crushed aluminum, that if I could record “this”: parents fighting, squirrels crunching acorns, garbage sorted like bad memories, that if I could find words to make sense of my own life, I could write anything. But in the neighborhood I grew up in, to be a writer meant to be a dead English novelist, like Charles Dickens. It simply wasn’t done. Some people had heard of Ernest Hemingway, but you had to know something about fishing and bull fighting. Women writers usually went mad or changed their names to George. I wanted to continue to be a female person, and I wanted to tell “the truth.” I wanted to explore “real life.” Mine, at least for starters. I would have liked to have written my memoirs, but only famous people wrote their memoirs. To my teachers, writing about “real life” meant only one thing, and I was tracked early on to write for newspapers.

By the time I got to high school I was writing most of the feature stories on our school paper. I was often asked to go after “difficult and sensitive” subjects which required intimate self-disclosures from the interviewees. My portfolio is filled with family tales of woe and grief. Picture me at fifteen, asking a laid-off worker from the Acorn Chemical Corporation plant, the father of eight, what it feels like now that his house has just burned down and all of his family’s possessions have been destroyed. Imagine me interviewing the pastors wife after her son, who was in my homeroom on the rare days he showed up, has just fatally overdosed on windowpane. It is no wonder that I was soon nicknamed The Sob Story Queen.

I did not know that I would someday decide I had exploited the people I wrote about. It never occurred to me to question why these stories did not satisfy my burning desire to write, or why, after writing them quickly and easily, I would hop on the back of Gary Pritchiks big black motorcycle and ride to the river where we tried again and again, beneath the blinking yellow factory lights, to set the Cuyahoga on fire. As a highschooler, I did not aim to achieve High Art; I wanted to pile up enough extra-curricular activities on my record to get into a decent college as far away from Cleveland as possible.

When I was asked to write a feature story on a friend of mine named Sharon who was suffering from Lupus, I realized that I was getting uncomfortable with this form of writing. I did it anyway, and the story won me a major journalism prize in Ohio, plus a scholarship to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, but it cost me a friend. After I wrote the story, Sharon and I simply never felt comfortable with one another again. It was as though, as Native Americans once said about their photographers, that I had stolen her soul. What interests me now about this incident is that out of all the people who might have written the article, I was truly the most familiar with Sharon’s Before and After Story, because I knew her body like I knew my own. Sharon and I had gone on our first diet together back in eighth grade. We had taken each others measurements week after week and finally, one spring morning, had pronounced each other beautiful. We had coached each other on what to expect from boys. None of that was in the story because my hard-nosed editor would have written “who cares?” across the front with his favorite grease pencil. Sharon remained other and her situation was simply tragic. Stripped of the noisy, meddling, “I,” the writer whose observations affect and interact with and ultimately bring life to the observed, Sharon as subject was now reduced to an object; she was not that living, wisecracking teenage girl with whom I’d once compared bellies and thighs.

Our first year in journalism school we had to take a course called Basic Writing; 50% of our grade was based on our final feature story which would be read in front of the class. I had not written a feature since the one I wrote on Sharon, and I was gun-shy. I searched the campus desperately for story ideas until one day,, in the middle of Sex Role Socialization Class, my professor told us about a fascinating woman she’d met at a party the night before who was a pre-school teacher by day, and madam for the most elite massage parlor in Chicago by night. This was before the time when we began to have suspicions about some of our pre-school teachers. The madam—whose name I’ve since forgotten but it was something very unexotic, like Doris—would be coming to the next class, and was eager to talk to any of us in private.

The next Saturday the madam drove out to Evanston in her beat-up orange Opal and sat across from me in my dorm room beneath my Arthur Rackham poster of Alice in Wonderland, eating the cookies and milk I’d bought at the campus snackshop. She reminded me of Mama Cass turned bombshell in her flowing Indian skirts and her low-cut blouse with the shiny red heart she’d lip-sticked onto her considerable cleavage. When she laughed her whole body shook, and the heart bobbed up and down like a fish. Outside the window there were kids playing frisbee while she told me everything I wanted to know, and more. Finally, after we’d talked for hours, she picked up my stuffed koala bear with its N.U. garter belt looped around its waist like a goofy satin hoola hoop, and she set it down again on top of the tape recorder. “You aren’t going to get the real story inside your sweet little ivory tower over here,” she said. “If you really want to know your material, you have to spend a day at `the house.’”

“The house” was not as seedy as I’d imagined. The “waiting area” was furnished discreetly with beige couches and chairs, Impressionist prints, potted plants, and a stereo that was playing the Brandenberg Concertos. I would have thought I was in an upscale dentists office if not for the two women posing at the window in fancy lingerie. One of these women told me that before she’d started hooking six months before she’d only slept with one man in her life, her abusive ex-husband. She was 27. She looked at me with anger, imagining condemnation in my eyes. The other woman was 18, just my age, and I took to her immediately. Both were black, although the madam assured me that the massage parlor was a veritable melting pot of colors and Chicago neighborhoods, and that white girls who looked like junior varsity cheerleaders were in high demand.

As the madam had promised, the house catered to men’s fantasies, and women were hired on the basis of whether or not they fit a “type.” There was also a room fullof costumes and make-up which could have serviced a theater s full repertory season, from MacBeth to A Streetcar Named Desire. My new friend, the 18-year-old, was six feet tall, and she’d been hired to deal specifically with men who needed women to be big. Her most frequent client was a prosecuting attorney who happened to be nearly seven feet tall. When he appeared socially with his wife, who was not quite five feet, people called them Mutt and Jeff. When the prosecutor visited the house, his lady for hire donned boxing gloves, duked it out with him in their imaginary ring, and knocked him down. Afterwards he would leap up unharmed, take off his gloves and hers, measure all 72 inches of her against the bedroom door with a yardstick, and then promptly carry her to bed, a redeemed slugger.

Then there was the pediatric prof at the medical school who wrote medical books by day and kinky fairy tales at night. The management required its women to be 18-and-over but they had no trouble finding voting age gals who looked undeveloped, ponytailed and girly-girlish enough to play Little Red Riding Hood to his Big Bad Wolf in those alliterative scripts he brought with him. And then there was the tax accountant necropheliac.

The only client I talked to was the priest, who went there every Sunday after church and stayed all day. He loved to bake for his women and today he brought a loaf of bread which we all broke together and washed down with Diet Pepsi instead of wine. He was a lonely, inarticulate man with a voice that sighed instead of sang, and I could not imagine him inspiring fervor and faith from behind his pulpit. Nor, for that matter, could I—or did I want to—picture him naked and panting with one of these women, but that’s exactly what I ultimately saw. Just as I was getting ready to leave, the 27-year-old insisted that if I were a true journalist and not a princess from the suburbs that I’d complete my research from behind the bedroom door. Before I could think about it I was in the same room with them, watching, notebook in hand, while they oiled, massaged, and stroked the priest to transcendence, all “on the house.”

That night, tucked safely inside my dorm room, I began to wade through all this rich material. Immediately I was pressed with many writerly problems. How was I to deal with point of view? Whose story was it? The working women’s? The clients’? My original goal had been to profile the madam, but she was swiftly being eclipsed by the prosecutor, the pediatrician, the necropheliac, and the priest, who were all far stranger than she was. How much of the dirt should I put in? What should I leave to the imagination? What about what I’d seen with my own eyes inside that room?

I finally chose to make the place and its strange characters the subject of my article, and to do this I took myself entirely out of the story. I wrote it as though I were a bug on the wall watching a typical day in the house, but I tried to use the voice of the madam as much as I could.

As it turned out, the t.a. took me aside later and told me he thought I could publish it in The Chicago Reader. Other students in the class had interviewed the Chicago journalists they hoped to line up internships with for the summer and he and the prof were thankful that I’d gone for something with “grit.” There was only one problem, he said, and that was the style. It was simply too literary. If I cut out all the adjectives, he said, I would be on my way to becoming a journalist.

I turned down his generous offer, as flattered as I was, because I’d promised the women I wouldn’t publish the piece. Now that I look back, it seems that there were other reasons why I didn’t want to sell this story to the Reader. One was that I wasn’t interested in developing the dry, “just the facts” style that the t.a. thought I needed to master in order to become a valid journalist. The other reason was that the real story for me was not, as everyone supposed, that respectable professional men can be sleazy but simply that an 18-year-old girl/woman with Arthur Rackham posters and a stuffed koala bear with a Northwestern garter belt had been in this place and talked to these people and seen what she’d seen, and that she had somehow been changed by having told this story. My problem, in 1976, was that I didn’t know of a journalistic form that would allow me to tell it the way it wanted to be told; those new literary journalists were not yet being taught. But neither, I discovered when I switched into creative writing, could it be told in a poem or short story.

Poetry writing was a two-quarter sequence taught by a woman who was writing her doctoral dissertation on the Modernist poets. Each week she had us read several volumes of the poet of the week—Eliot, Pound, Moore, Bogan, Stevens, Williams, and others—and then write two poems, the first a “pastiche” for which we obviously stole not only the poets technical bag of tricks but his or her material as well, and the other an “imitation” for which we borrowed a technique but still tried to write our own poem. By the end of the first semester, whatever ‘Voice” we’d all had before had been consumed by the tones and postures of our Modernist mentors. We would call each other on the phone and say, “How do you write a poem?”

The summer after that workshop I went to Wesleyan College and attended my first writers’ conference. My workshop teacher read my poems and was kind enough to point out the origins of each line in my work. “That’s from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18,” he said, “and that’s from ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’”and “that’s one of Louise Bogan s metaphors for depression. Where are you in these poems?”

A year or so later I went to one of my old poetry teacher’s readings. She closed with a poem about the town where she’d grown up, which was somewhere—I couldn’t believe it—in the South. I’d always assumed, given her diction, that she’d spent much of her life in English boarding schools. Maybe she had. Then it dawned on me. On a certain level, my teacher’s aspirations to literary academia may have been spawned by a profound self-hatred. As mine had. Along with the dreams of countless other girl-women I knew skulking around miserably in the library. If my teacher had exerted so much energy trying to transform herself from the down home girl to the Oxford poet scholar, then how could she help me go deep into myself to find my authentic voice and material and story? I signed up for fiction writing and hoped for the best.

The fiction writing class was taught by a tall, trim, blue-jeaned, very hip late-30’ish fellow who was nicknamed “The Marlboro Man” by the circle of female students who had crushes on him. He had a slight Western twang and wore cowboy boots. When he came to our parries he smoked pot with us and told humorous anecdotes about the famous writers he’d met. His class was entertaining and lively. We got to write about subjects closer to our own life, but there was still a lot of stigma against being “self-indulgent” and “autobiographical.” Style was more important than content—you had to be slick and exude a certain daring razzmatazz. You couldn’t be political or direct. Processing personal experience was only okay if you applied heavy irony. Think of the times. It was now 1978, and people everywhere were trying to numb their pain from the previous decade by wearing shiny half-buttoned shirts and jumping into vats of hot water with near-strangers to the beat of the Bee Gees.

Although there was some lip service paid to original “voice” and “place” in my writing training, the fashionable voices were usually male back then: Bellow, Nabokov, Gass, excerpts from Pyncheon, and a smattering of Ishmael Reed for color. I felt pressure to rev up my narrative engine, just as, when the Carver school made the grade soon thereafter, I felt pressure to edit everything back out except for the name brand products. And as far as place was concerned, it seemed to me you had only two choices. You could write about rural New England, of course, or you could write about the gritty “mean streets” of a Chicago, L.A., or New York. But what about a place as modest and chintzy as Cleveland, nicknamed The Mistake by the Lake? When I looked out the window I saw not Mt. Monadnock, not the pushers at the subway, but a few scrappy trees and a mechanical crane devouring crushed cars. I wrote stories, back then, set in places I’d never been, like Paris and Barcelona and San Francisco, because, it seemed, my own eyes had never seen anything worth mentioning.

I’ve heard that when Annie Dillard first began writing what became Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she intended to set it in Acadia National Park in Maine and write it in third person, in the voice of a 50-year-old male academic metaphysician. After a time she realized that she didn’t know Acadia the way she knew her home in Virginia, but it took a great deal of coaxing on the part of an enlightened editor to get her to write it in her own young female voice. This book, published just a year before I started college, points to a problem that women and people of color have always had in this country. Many of us have gotten one too many “who cares?” written in red ink on our work. I think it is very common for the writer, especially the student writer, to approach a writing project with the feeling I am not worthy, as I am, with what I know now, to tell this story as I see it in my own words. To be an authority on this subject I have to hide behind the voice of someone else, perhaps someone whiter, with more Y chromosomes; to sound like I’ve “been around” I have to be from New York, or London, or Paris, or a charming old farm in New England with a ghost in the apple orchard who recites Robert Frost.

It was not until I was nearly 30—just as memoir and the whole genre of creative nonfiction began to flower—that the stories from my life I’d tried to disguise and romanticize in fiction came exploding, honestly and urgently, onto the page. As a writer, a teacher, and a reader myself, I have come to see that today’s readers are hungering for I-as-eye-witness truth, perhaps because we live in an age where it is now commonly known that our political leaders are liars and thieves. People are choosing to learn about Vietnamese war brides, the years of Stalin, and the American 1950s not from the so-called expert historians or the ruling patriarchs who led from inside their offices, but from “real people” whose solitary landscapes and single voices have a power which illuminates the larger humanity we all share—which makes, as the short story once did, the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Just as readers are hungry to learn the truth in a language that is more lively than they find in the daily papers, our students yearn to tell their own truths and to come to understand themselves and their connection to the world better in the process. Creative nonfiction is a genre in which student writers can use their authentic voices and make no bones about their presence in the work. They can write about places they know well. They can feel that what they have seen with their own eyes is of literary value, and of human value to others.

It is my belief that education should be a nourishing place for the heart and soul as well as the mind, and it should build confidence, not destroy it. How do we help our students draw on their own resources, not just their acquired knowledge? The teaching of creative nonfiction can validate the students’ current lives, and strengthen their writing skills. Nonfiction writing in first person teaches the young writer to sharpen her powers of observation and use of memory, to hone his specificity and finesse for naming concrete things, and to create an honest, living voice. For the student writer, the permission to write about something he or she passionately cares about is what motivates that writer to go the extra mile to make the prose vivid and clear, rather than flat, empty, and vague. To write first-person nonfiction well, one must make contact with what Brenda Ueland calls “our True Self, the very Center, for … here lies all originality, talent, honor, truthfulness, courage and cheerfulness.”

I suspect that had courses in creative nonfiction been available to me back in Cleveland, I could have saved myself about 15 years’ worth of writing mistakes.

Perhaps one day when encouraging a student to seek her “True Self in nonfiction prose is a basic component of writing pedagogy and not some retrograde Sixties concept, it will be customary to write “Why do you care about this?” on student essays, instead of “who cares?” Perhaps helping our students search for “the very Center” right from the start will save them several years of writing mistakes. Whereas William Gass, in his introduction to In the Heart of the Heart of Country advises the aspiring young fiction writer always to “wait five years,” the young nonfiction writer who has found his or her voice can often master a particular piece of memoir well enough to create something worthwhile and even publishable right now.

About the Author

Natalia Rachel Singer

Natalia Rachel Singer is the Craig Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, where she was hired in 1990 to design and teach courses in creative nonfiction. Her essay, “Nonfiction in the First Person, Without Apology,” is a version of a talk she gave at St.

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