“The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”Robert Louis Stevenson, “Truth of Intercourse”
In the personal essay—and autobiographical writing in general—truthful accounts and historical facts can be distorted in several ways. The first, of course, is by means of outright lies, but although such falsehoods are highly publicized, as we saw with the 2003 publication of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” they are not as common as supposed. Most serious writers try to avoid using detailed public information that could lead to such unfavorable exposure. When memoirists lie, they usually play it safe (as Frey unfortunately did not) by fabricating unverifiable private incidents, many of these prefaced by the now clichéd phrase, “Suddenly, I realized. . . .”
Another, and far more common, form of distorting the truth in autobiography was succinctly articulated by Mark Twain in a letter to his brother, who was attempting to write one. Twain advised his brother to “try to tell the straight truth . . . to refrain from exhibiting himself in creditable attitudes exclusively and to honorably set down all the incidents of his life . . . including those which were burned into his memory because he was ashamed of them.” Twain found his brother’s autobiography disappointing, but when he began to write his own, he recognized that his advice was impossible to follow: “I have been dictating this autobiography of mine daily for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet.” The desire to make a good impression can easily defeat our determination to reveal the unvarnished truth about ourselves.
Our personal recollections are also filtered through our individual perspectives and worldviews. As writers, we tend to extol what we like and condemn what we dislike, whether our subject is our personal relationships, cultural values or political beliefs. The reader of a memoir about an ugly divorce might not want to accept the writer’s account of an ex-husband or ex-wife as totally honest or objective. What political memoir doesn’t have an ax to grind? To read an autobiography is to enter into a subjective realm, where we often need to read against the grain and continually remind ourselves that, much of the time, we are seeing only part of the picture. Personal biases can easily result in a self-serving omission or distortion of numerous facts and details that don’t support the autobiographer’s position.
Besides the selective memory produced by self-justification and personal bias, there is another type of faulty memory that leads to inaccuracy. Such distortions are mostly inadvertent and benign. For example, in their splendid joint memoir, “Back Then,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Justin Kaplan and his wife, the novelist Anne Bernays, describe their young adult lives in 1950s New York City. They point out how racially segregated the city was at the time and how accustomed they were to “seeing only white faces as patrons in theaters, restaurants, hotels and sports arenas.” Then they add that it “was only in 1947, when Jackie Robinson, wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, trotted out to second base at Ebbets Field, that the color line in major league baseball was finally breached.” The factual error is understandable; Robinson has long been known as one of the game’s legendary second-basemen, and so it is largely forgotten that he played his entire debut season at first base. Such errors are trivial (note that the authors don’t claim they actually saw Robinson trot out to second base), and I point out this one only as a reminder of how easily anyone can slip up in recounting “facts” that may be taken for granted.
Most interesting, to me, is a fifth type of distortion in autobiographical writing. It does not involve deliberate deceit, the suppression of shameful or embarrassing self-revelations, a biased outlook or misremembered facts. This form of distortion is a byproduct of what happens when we attempt to narrate and describe personal experiences: The very act of composition itself affects what we say and how we say it. A good example of how this phenomenon works can be seen in an exceptional personal essay by the late novelist Frank Conroy. In “Think about It,” Conroy attempts to make sense of episodes from his past. Recalling an incident from his college days that ended in a mundane, indecisive fashion, he says parenthetically: “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.” In this passing comment, Conroy identifies a central conflict of literary genre; by the “writer in me,” he means the novelist. This inner-novelist would prefer a better ending—sharp, memorable, dramatic—but if Conroy expects his account to convey honestly what actually happened, he must squash the novelist’s creative urge and settle for the essay’s unexciting inconclusiveness. No dramatic closure, no convenient epiphany.
Conroy’s remark is parenthetical, but it raises a serious question: Are the aesthetic satisfactions that can be enjoyed by writers of fiction off limits to those who write nonfiction? In resisting a satisfying narrative conclusion or resolution to his essay, Conroy suggests that honesty may demand the suspension of narrative effects that would be wholly appropriate for creative writing. To be truthful, in other words, writers of personal essays must, somewhat paradoxically, be extremely cautious of the “writer in them” lest they give way to the temptation of creating scenes or inventing dramatic episodes. Conroy’s remark also suggests that such dramatic scenes or episodes in personal essays and memoirs should make readers suspicious of the writer’s factual honesty, since life (unlike art) rarely offers decisive dramatic resolutions or life-transforming epiphanies.
Wittgenstein once memorably claimed that philosophy is a struggle against the fascination that certain forms of expression exert upon us. One could extend this notion to the literary memoir and argue that autobiography is a struggle against the fascination that certain forms of narrative exert upon us. In other words, a deep need for closure, continuity, cohesiveness and consequentiality (as the psychoanalyst Donald P. Spence suggests) entices us into fictionalizing our often discontinuous, disjointed and inconsequential personal experiences. No matter how truthful we’d like our account to be, certain aesthetic or compositional pressures—including, of course, the temptation to be entertaining—interfere and reshape our disorderly personal experiences into satisfying stories. “If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales,” says a medieval bishop to an aspiring author in Umberto Eco’s novel “Baudolino,” “otherwise your Histories would be monotonous. But you must act with restraint,” he continues. “The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things.”
And yet, it is clear that fictional elements can be employed to tell a short “true” story. I’ll supply as an illustration E.B. White’s fairly well-known “Death of a Pig,” a perfect specimen of the personal narrative or autobiographical anecdote, in which a writer narrates an episode based entirely on an experience. There are conventions to this type of story: The speaker is presumably the author, and the style is usually straight-forward, sincere and conversational. Usually the writer offers enough biographical detail to persuade the reader that the “I” speaking (even if not explicitly identified) is verifiably the author and not an invented narrator. Despite whatever skepticism some of us may bring to such first-person narratives, there is in all of us, I believe, a strong countervailing tendency to take the writer’s word and regard such personal accounts as “true.” Usually, the narrated episode is so ordinary or publicly insignificant that it seems unlikely a writer would make it up: In this case, why would White invent the story of an ailing pig? And even if invented, what difference would it make to a reader? The entire episode seems plausible—so what if it didn’t really happen?
Or didn’t happen exactly as reported? Surely, White exaggerates the emotions he felt; certainly not every detail is reported as precisely as it happened. I believe most personal narrative essays follow a similar model: The core episode did, indeed, occur, but many of the supporting details are highly selected, reshaped, embellished or outright fabricated—not out of willful deceit but for a deeper overarching purpose. Let’s give this purpose a name: “literary effect.” White was first and foremost a literary essayist, not a newspaper reporter, and what mattered most to him as a writer were the elements of style and the aesthetics of composition.
Here is how White’s essay opens:
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health, I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.
Notice that White begins right off with his motivation for writing: He feels driven to account for a “stretch of time.” He’s especially concerned about this indefinite stretch of time because of his inability to recall the hours precisely, an uncertainty that leads to a grim “sense of personal deterioration.” It is this sense of deterioration—not the death of his pig—that is the central theme of the essay. White expects the act of writing will help him “account” for the lost time, but as the essay proceeds, despite its fussiness about the hours and its nicely worked-out alteration of ritual and interruption, we see that White’s compositional account doesn’t, finally, enable him to make a computational account of the lapsed time. Toward the conclusion of the essay, we learn that the pig “died twenty-our hours later, or it might have been forty-eight—there is a blur in time here, and I may have lost or picked up a day in the telling and the pig one in the dying.”
This anxiety over the passage of time establishes a dominant mood for the essay and adds a sense of heightened drama to what would be a trivial event in the annals of veterinary science. White’s essay offers us a concise glimpse into the literary construction of time and narrative, but my rather simple point is this: White was not alone with a dying pig on an isolated farm during this relatively brief episode. As we discover in the course of the essay, he calls a neighbor for advice, attends a dinner party, cares for the pig with his son, consults with a vet by phone, is visited by another vet who brings his fiancée, and then enlists someone to dig a grave for the pig. If White were as deeply disturbed over his inability to account for the lapsed time as he maintains he is, he could have simply gathered information from any of these people—especially the gravedigger—and reconstructed an almost hour-by-hour schedule of events. Given the few days it took for the episode to transpire, such a reconstruction would have been easy.
White mentions it’s a Saturday when he sees the grave being dug, and we can safely calculate, based on his chronicle of events, that he first noticed the sick pig the previous Tuesday, that the vet made his sick call Wednesday night and that White discovered the pig dead Friday night. Apparently, he can’t be certain whether the pig died Friday or Thursday. There is much here that remains unexplained or that doesn’t compute. White never explains how or why he lost track of time, does not acknowledge any interruption in his ministrations and—perhaps because the feeling was so disconcerting—makes no attempt within the essay to perform the calculations that would have allowed him to figure out when the pig died.
One passage especially adds to the confusion. After the vet McFarland examines the pig on Wednesday night and leaves, White goes to bed, unhappily realizing “that the pig was not going to live.” There is then a section break that opens with White claiming, “[T]here is a blur in time here,” and he doesn’t know if the pig died “twenty-four hours later” (which would have been Thursday) or “forty-eight” (Friday). He then adds (italics mine): “At intervals during the last day, I took cool fresh water down to him. . . . He drank a few sips but no more. . . .” Then again: “Once, near the last, while I was attending him, I saw him try to make a bed for himself, but he lacked the strength. . . .” Does White, then, know the “last” day or when the pig’s “last” hours were near? Or does he mean that this is the “last” day he remembers?
A final confusing moment comes with the pig’s burial at the end of the essay. White writes: “Here, among alders and young hackmatacks, at the foot of the apple tree, Lennie had dug a beautiful hole, five feet long, three feet wide, three feet deep.” Lennie? We have not previously been introduced to Lennie, and—whoever he is—how did he know a pig required burying? Is this unannounced introduction of a new character an oversight by White (and his editors), or could it be that White was digging himself into a hole in this essay and realized that by offering an explanation of Lennie’s identity—someone who knew the pig had died, is able to dig a proper grave and then perform an autopsy—he would be compositionally obligated to fully account for the lost time?
It is possible, of course, that during this incident, White actually did lose track of time momentarily, but, as we have seen, he makes no effort in the essay to explain or describe how or why this happened and apparently resists the many opportunities he had in the process of writing to reconstruct the calendrical sequence of events. A careful—or distrustful—reader can see that the writer in White has pretty much invented this blurred time frame for the occasion of writing an essay. For literary purposes, White invented a narrative self who has to remain unaware of all the pertinent information the author himself could have easily accessed. This situation is, of course, a standard feature of the novel in which an author (say, Jane Austen) writing in the third person has greater information than any of her characters, but as readers of first-person essays, we’ve grown so conditioned to identify the narrative “I” with the author—to accept these two distinct entities as one and the same—that we have become less attuned overall to the literary effects of nonfiction.
On the Perils of Naming Characters
When the Atlantic Monthly published “Death of a Pig” in January 1948—White had been invited to contribute to the magazine’s 90th-anniversary issue—the piece, which then appeared in four numbered parts, also contained the real names of some of the characters involved. The neighbor White first calls for advice about the sick pig is Charles Henderson, a lobster fisherman who appears occasionally as “Mr. Dameron” in White’s essays for Harper’s (later collected in “One Man’s Meat”). The gravedigger is Howard, not “Lennie.” The young veterinarian, “McFarland,” who visits the farm and assures White there is no cause to fear contagion from erysipelas is identified as McDonald.
The use of real names caused White some local grief. A Maine paper, The Ellsworth American, noticed the essay and on Jan. 7, 1948, printed an article suggesting White had been critical of the local veterinarian, E.J. McDonald. A week later, White wrote McDonald a letter of apology, saying he had “started out using fictitious names, instead of real ones, but my experience with the use of fictitious names in connection with real events is that the populace manages to hang the wrong name on the wrong character, and that, too, makes for bad feelings and misunderstanding.” He assured McDonald he was not “trying to take a quick punch at veterinary medicine in Hancock County.”
Still, when White included “Death of a Pig” in “The Second Tree from the Corner” in 1954, he restored the fictitious names.
The literary elements in White’s essay are numerous: Besides the fabrication of the “lost” time, we find dialogue, atmosphere, dramatic action, narrative closure and an especially effective extended metaphor that casts the pig’s death in terms of a theatrical script. In the end, what makes “Death of a Pig” an essay and not a short story is its explicit statement of compositional purpose. In his final paragraph, White further explains, with some humor, the purpose of his writing: “I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.” In other words, it’s not the death of the pig that troubles White; it’s the perception of failure and interrupted routine by an individual who feels compelled to account for every moment of his time—and who possesses an overwhelming, perhaps hypochondriacal, sense of mortality (the medical term is necrophobia) evidenced by the fact that he transfers the pig’s ultimately undiagnosed illness to his own undiagnosed illness. White was clearly a hypochondriac, and as soon as he hears from the first vet he calls that the pig might have erysipelas, he immediately imagines he has contracted the disease. Such identity transfers occur frequently in White’s writing, and they figure as the central experience in much of his best work, such as his most compelling essay, “Once More to the Lake,” and the underappreciated, thinly disguised short story “The Second Tree from the Corner,” with its explicit reference to a patient’s identity disorders, anxiety symptoms and persistent hypochondria. In “Death of a Pig,” to dramatize his psychological “deterioration,” White needed to blur the passage of time by pretending not to know something he either did know or could easily have known.
This blurred time also meshes nicely with the dense fog that has settled over the region, “blotting out the world and taking possession of houses, men and animals,” and makes a significant contribution to the essay’s atmosphere of dissolution, boundary mutations and mystery (much of the essay’s action takes place in the dark). White apparently decided that for him to determine, from available evidence, which day the pig died would be less aesthetically satisfying than for him to maintain the illusion of uncertainty. In the narrative of events he establishes from the opening paragraph, the lost time, though only stated and never dramatized, must have seemed to White the best way compositionally to ensure his little sketch possessed psychological resonance and consequentiality, elevating a small farmyard incident into a larger psychological drama.