On Guarding Against an Over-Active Imagination

An interview with Jerald Walker, writer of essay "The Heart"

CNF: Your essay “The Heart” tells the story of how your brother’s wife (now ex-wife) nearly cut off his thumb. The central domestic scene occurs while you’re not present to witness it. By what process did you reconstruct the details, crafting both the particulars of the event itself and the larger tone?

WALKER: It was a reconstruction based on the facts available to me—which is to say my brother’s account of the incident—and on my personal familiarity with the characters and the physical space in which the essay is set.
CNF: To what extent did you rely on imagination versus research in crafting this scene?

WALKER: Without the research I couldn’t have written this essay, to say nothing of writing the scene. But as I set out to convert the research into prose, I drew from my imagination of the events as they’d been described. The charge when writing an essay in this manner is to not let one’s imagination become the story’s author—as it most assuredly will try to do; that’s how nature rigged us—but rather to restrict it to being the story’s medium.

CNF: I’m sure, though, that you had, in some way, imagined the scene prior to researching its details. Did you ever find your first impressions sneaking into the story?  Is it necessary, or possible, to avoid this?

WALKER: I have an over-active imagination, which I’m constantly on guard against in my nonfiction and in my fiction. So I had many first impressions and some absolutely sneaked into the story. While I knew I needed to weed them out, there was a natural urge to let a few remain in order to enrich the narrative. Here’s an extreme example: when I first heard of my brother’s stabbing (via my mother during a frantic late-night phone call) the facts were still pretty murky—all we knew for certain was that it involved a knife, his wife, and his thumb. Immediately, I pictured his thumb being severed. As a brother I didn’t want this to be the case, of course, but later, as a writer, I saw its literary value—symbolic and metaphoric. In very early drafts of the essay, I yielded to this first impression (“…his thumb lay on the floor,” I wrote, “like a miniature hot dog, popped free of its bun…”), but in so doing I understood that I had exceeded the bounds of nonfiction. Actually, I was speaking with a friend the other day about the bounds of the genre and he reminded me of an essay by Frank Conroy (“Think About It”) in which Conroy states, “…the writer in me is tempted to create a scene here—to invent one for dramatic purposes—but of course I can’t do that.” If nonfiction writers are aware that their initial impressions of a story are at odds with the facts, then it’s their responsibility to exercise the kind of restraint Conroy exercised.

CNF: In this case, do you think the story suffers at all from this restraint? Or, in the end, is it better for it? 

WALKER: I don’t think it’s a better or worse story, just a different one, and the difference is really one of detail, not of substance. But to your larger point, some factual stories must be fictionalized in order for them to meet the demands of literature, and some factual stories have all the demands of literature at hand and require, perhaps, only proper structuring. It was my initial inability to find the proper structure for the facts, not the lack of fiction, that resulted in many, many unsuccessful drafts of this essay.

CNF: Clearly, you were in contact with your brother during your research.  Were you in contact with other characters as well?

WALKER: I spoke only with my brother, which is why I have access only to his point of view and, of course, mine. And that’s the way I wanted it, because the essay is really about us.

CNF: If you had also spoken with other characters in the scene, how, if at all, do you think the essay might have changed?

WALKER: People see, hear, and generally experience things differently, and they also like to cast themselves in the most positive light, so I’m certain I would have had as many versions of the scene as the characters with whom I spoke. My brother is extraordinarily laid-back, hardly ever rattled, and I tried to capture that absence of hysteria in the scene’s tone, despite the scene being hysterical.

CNF: If you relied most heavily on your brother’s experience of the event, did you ever consider crafting this scene in first person from his perspective?  Is there an added danger or responsibility in moving from writing a character’s experience to assuming a character’s voice?

WALKER: I never considered crafting the essay from my brother’s perspective; I wanted my perspective to shape the telling of the experience. But had I decided to assume my brother’s voice, I would have needed to gain access to his thoughts and emotions to a degree that wasn’t necessary primarily as a reporter. The danger, however, in speaking for instead of about him—or for anyone—is the possibility of misrepresentation, or of an accurate but unflattering representation—a danger that’s present in all narratives, to be sure, but the stakes would seem to be greater when appearance and/or assumption is that the “I” in the essay and the author of the essay are one in the same.

CNF: Do you consider yourself an objective narrator in this piece?

WALKER: No, I don’t. And that was neither my goal nor my capability. I wanted to write an essay that explored my affection for my brother, my resentment for his wife, and the anxiety caused me by both emotions. So I definitely brought a strong subjectivity to the piece. But it’s my subjectivity, and my attempt to confront and understand it—thought not necessarily to overcome it—that provide the essay’s movement and friction.  Objective narration has its place, for instance, with some types of reportage. But with the personal essay, honesty and fairness are important, not objectivity.

CNF: Do you think there is a difference between remaining true to fact and being true to experience? And if there is a difference, is one more valuable in nonfiction writing, or in your story in particular?

WALKER: Prior to the release of my memoir, “Street Shadows,” I published an excerpt of it in which I stated, with absolute certainty, that my brother Tim was not at my 28th birthday party. A few weeks later, I found a photograph of the party in which, grinning into the camera, is Tim. I published the book with the correction. So now there are two published versions of the party—one with Tim, one without, one factual, both true.     “Truth” is the hallmark of good literature, the aspiration of all serious writers, but when it is at odds with fact in nonfiction the writer runs the risk of having the work dismissed as fabrication or, depending upon the severity of the discrepancy, lunacy. But for a nonfiction writer’s “truth” to correspond with fact on all occasions, then that—to quote the literary critic Georg Lukacs—“would require a particularly happy accident.” Most readers are sophisticated enough to know that accidents like these don’t always happen in nonfiction, and so they often rely on writers to offer guidance for how their work should be read. Was their allegiance to personal experience? Universal fact? A combination of the two? How much of one versus the other?

Sometimes authors provide the answers within the works themselves, and sometimes they provide them as an addendum, either as a foreword, an afterword, or as an author’s note. In my author’s note, I stated that I opted for fact over “truth” when the two were in clear dispute. That’s the general rule of thumb I follow when writing nonfiction. But that’s a personal artistic choice; I make no claims that it is the right one, and it certainly isn’t the only one.

Of the discovery of a few chronological and other errors in his brilliant memoir “This Boy’s Life,” Tobias Wolff wrote, “I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

I mean, how can you argue with that?


Jerald Walker is the author of “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption” and an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College. His essay “The Heart” appears in Creative Nonfiction #39.

About the Author

Jenelle Pifer

Jenelle Pifer is the editor of the Longform podcast, a freelance consultant, and executive producer of a forthcoming podcast.

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