On Creative Non-Fiction

I’ve got quite a lot of book reviews to catch up on so I’ll see how far I get. I’ve read some particularly fine non-fiction in the past few weeks that has been intriguing in its own right but has also posed some questions about the new distinctions that seem to be creeping into the non-fiction genre. I’ve often wondered what separates a memoir from creative non-fiction, and had reason to ponder on this when I read Michele Morano’s beautiful and evocative essays on her time living in Spain, which are collected under the title ‘Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain’. When I read about this book I knew instantly I had to have it: ‘Michele Morano connects the rules of grammar to the stories we tell to help us understand our worlds’ the write-up declared, and I was deeply attracted to the thought of a series of essays that used the discipline and the strange, contorted randomness of grammar (and it’s amazing how that contradiction is what makes language so vital and so complex) to explore the possibilities we have for telling experience. The essay that does this most comprehensively is entitled ‘In the Subjunctive Mood’ and it entwines a backward glance at the reasons that made Morano take off for a year in Spain in the first place with the distinction her apprenticeship in another language alerts her to between the indicative mood (what is or has been) and the subjunctive (the realm of the possible). The indicative reminds Morano of what has happened, that she was in love, that the man she loved tried to kill himself and that this had a debilitating effect on her own life. The subjunctive, ‘on the other hand, is uncertain. It helps you tell what could have been, or might be or what you want but may not get. You’d use the subjunctive to say: I thought he’d improve without me. Or, I left so that he’d begin to take care of himself.’ ‘English is losing the subjunctive mood’, Morano writes. ‘It lingers in some constructions (“If he were dead,” for example), but it’s no longer pervasive. That’s the beauty and also the danger of English – that the definite and the might-be often look so much alike. And it’s the reason why during a period of your life when everything feels hypothetical, Spain will be a very seductive place to live.’

I found this to be a wonderful essay, profound, compassionate and enlightening, but it stands out as one of the few essays that really explore the rich seam of grammatical structure that shapes and defines narrative. And I have to say that initially I found that rather disappointing because I felt the premise had so much potential. Morano separates her essays into three sections, the first of which concerns her year spent in Oviedo in the early 1990s, the second focuses on trips back to Spain in later years and the final section is written from the perspective of the present and takes a contemplative view of Morano’s experiences in life, love and language. In the first section a kind of enthusiastic naivety reigns with Morano desperately in love with her new country as, one imagines, a kind of benevolent substitute for the dangerous love she left behind. These are all fine essays but a boundaried, introspective gaze dominates that means we learn very little about the places she visits and the friends she makes. I was puzzled about this until I recalled my own year living abroad and remembered how so much escapes the fledgling linguist. The stories other people tell you in a poorly mastered foreign language are only ever partly possessed, great gaps exist in their fabric, and the dimensions of nuance and subtext escape you forever. I remember it was why I found developing friendships so difficult; people were delightful to me but I hated the way that I couldn’t understand everything they said. I felt I was missing so much, that I couldn’t engage and relate the way I did in my own language. Inevitably, trapped in flawed comprehension, the experience of living abroad is often a solipsistic one, romantic maybe, but isolated in a profound way.

As the book progresses, however, it pleased me a great deal to watch Morano’s perspective maturing and deepening. The latter two sections contain some really stunning essays that may not deal much with grammar but which are constantly alert to the perils and pleasures of travel, and to the concepts of escape and discovery that propel the individual into motion. My favourite essay of all, however, is the last one, in which Morano describes a problem she has with language; that when she is tired or stressed she inexplicably substitutes the wrong word here and there into her sentences. It turns out to be symptomatic of a long-standing sense she has that her language skills are insufficient, and leads her into a meditation on both her travails to improve her English vocabulary and her sense of her own working class roots. I’d come to really appreciate Morano’s voice by now and I felt this essay was honest and disarming. But I’d also come to realize that although Morano explores her experience with delicacy and intelligence, she holds back from any kind of in depth analysis. Morano is alive to the moods of the indicative, the what happened to her, and the subjunctive, the what might have been desired or anticipated, but she doesn’t really have a third mood, as yet unnamed as far as I know, that takes her to a place of mastery of experience. In fact, this is just fine; it gives her writing a distinctive flavour and doesn’t detract in the least from all that she does so very well in her essays. But it made me wonder whether creative non-fiction means writing non-fiction with the explanations left out, a way of leaving the mystery intact in something that is supposed to be fact.

This leads me onto Janet Malcolm’s utterly brilliant biography of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, ‘The Silent Woman’. Malcolm’s approach to the subject is to consider the tremendous difficulty involved in writing about a couple who have entered into legend. The cherished story of Sylvia Plath as a wronged woman gets in the way of other, more reasonable, less hysterical versions, and condemns Ted Hughes (who, it seems is so aware of his condemnation that he has decided the only thing to do about it is, precisely, nothing) without offering any recourse to alternative histories. Of course that doesn’t mean that the alternatives don’t exist, only that they are demonized from the first word. Malcolm does a wonderful job of presenting us with clear-sighted pictures of the main characters in the web of literary figures who have contributed to the myth of Ted and Sylvia one way or another, showing us with astounding subtlety how much their own agendas are involved in the testimonies they produce and cling to. Malcolm’s book moves through a series of portraits of vivid, difficult figures: Ted Hughes’s combative, defensive sister, Olwyn, who guards the Plath estate with aggressive tenacity, the wounded poet Anne Stevenson, whose biography, Bitter Fame, attracted so much negative press after declaring itself on the side of the Hughes’s, the scarily intelligent and professional Jacqueline Rose, whose feminist, psychoanalytic book on Plath’s poetry has solidified the image of Plath as a victim of patriarchy, even Trevor Thomas, the self-centered, querulous gentleman who lived in the basement flat of the building in which Plath committed suicide, and whose (wholly fabricated) account of Hughes’ partying after the funeral contributed so decisively to his vilification.

The point of all this is to demonstrate how the most misleading and inaccurate of reports come from eye-witness accounts. We make of people what we want to make of them, essentially, and the written representations tell us more about their authors than their subjects. This leads Malcolm to the stunning insight that: ‘In a work of non-fiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. […] In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way it is. Only in non-fiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.’ Malcolm’s book revolves around the key players in the myth that is the breakdown of the marriage between Plath and Hughes, but her real subject is the problem of biography, the way that a relative stranger can take on another person’s life and propose to tell the truth about it. This is partly the effect of a convincing and well-constructed narrative – we expect to find truth in one of those, and are regularly seduced by hearing what sounds like it ought to be right. But is this really the ‘truth’? When Malcolm visits Trevor Thomas she is initially alarmed by the sheer volume of clutter in his house that proliferates on every available surface until individual objects lose all meaning. But, ‘Later, as I thought about Thomas’s house (which I often did; one does not easily forget such a place), it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless – as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life.’ The messiness of the house also appealed to Malcolm as a metaphor for the difficulty of writing, of picking through the huge amounts of lumber in the storeroom we call the mind and trying to find which bits really matter.

When it comes to her own story, Malcolm does a fantastic job of this by alerting the reader to the process of writing non-fiction, biography in particular, as she goes about it. The meta-dimension to this book opens up the most amazing space in which the reader, in the most natural way possible, gets to see the creative, decision-making process at work as the author goes about assembling truth from the contradictory, partisan accounts of the Plath-Hughes marriage. Would we be justified in calling this unusual book creative biography? Or is it precisely not creative in the way that it leaves all the explanations in? For my own part, I’d just have to call it an original and enlightening account of the problems implicit in writing biography and encourage everyone who thinks they know what happened between Plath and Hughes to read it.

18 thoughts on “On Creative Non-Fiction

  1. I very much enjoyed your comments on Malcolm’s book. I often think about the difficulties of “telling the truth” and so I generally prefer to tell the truth through poetry and fiction (though I do keep a journal). Malcolm’s book sounds like a fantastic read and I was particularly struck with the cluttered house as a metaphor. My favourite biography was of Karen Blixon, (sorry I’m at work and can’t recall the title…). I recall getting insight into the biographer’s relationship with her subject; it was 7 years in the writing.

    I was also interested in Morano’s book. I have often thought of writing an essay called “The Decay of the Subjunctive”. My teaching of the subjunctive to non-native speakers caused me much reflection on the meaning and gradual disappearance of this mood. I’d like to try to find this book as I’m sure I would enjoy the writing and reflection.

    Thanks for your work!

  2. Excellent commentary on the Malcolm book, which I thought fascinating too. The other with its notion of grammar as an important construct of experience sounds good but not on that central premise. I’ve always thought that if language creates or defines our experience then grammar must be a central factor as it underpins our word constructions like a skeleton, allowing some functions of thought and inhibiting others. Probably linguistics has information on this but the small contact I’ve had with that didn’t appeal to me for some reason. Glad to have you posting again!

  3. The Morano books sounds like exactly something I would enjoy reading – it would be interesting to compare my own current expat experience as well as the other stints I’ve had in various other countries with her thoughts. I like your comment about living abroad as a solipsistic experience – I think that is very true. And something that a true expat either fights very hard to overcome or revels in (perhaps sometimes both).

  4. For me, all writing is creative – as you say, it’s absolutely impossible for a writer to remove herself from the telling. Each person is a different person to every other person.
    I think what may be happening now is part of what some people call a postmodern (or post-postmodern) sensibility, where we pull away the veil and reveal more of the craft in the creation. I actually like that a lot.
    And the books you described sound great – and your reviews, as always, are excellent.
    Thanks.

  5. The Malcolm book sounds like a must-read. I like the post-modern idea that truth is only ever partial and that awareness of your own role in creating the story highlights some aspects and obscures others. Everything becomes more complex, unfortunately.

  6. Islandmongoose – hello and welcome to the site! I would love to read that biography of Karen Blixen (a fascinating writer about whom I know too little) and also your essay on the decay of the subjunctive. Please write it soon! Bluestocking – hello to you, too! How nice of you to come over and leave greetings. Thank you. Bookboxed – I love the metaphor of grammar as a skeleton – I think that’s very apt. I am no fan of linguistics, which seems to really work at making a topic dull, but I think there must be very intriguing concepts to be followed through in the study of syntax and self-expression. I remember you recommended the Malcolm, and it was indeed fabulous. Jean – good luck with getting hold of the Morano – I do hope you manage it! It is well worth a read. Oh and have a nice holiday, too. Verbivore – I really do think you would appreciate the Morano, and I would love to know what you make of it, being the polyglot that you are. I could get along with the solipsism for a while, but I remember how glad I was to set foot in England again and have everyone around me talking in a way I could fully understand! Andi – it lends a very special dimension to the Malcolm book to be shown the nuts and bolts of biography, or not quite that, more the motivations and the deceits. I guess it reminds us how creative all genres are, even the factual ones! Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Pete – I do think you would enjoy the Malcolm book. I believe she is a psychotherapist as well as a journalist and writer and whilst it’s not a dimension she peddles, you can feel the depth of her understanding in every portrait she paints.

  7. I read the Morano essay you discuss, the one about grammar, and loved it — loved it! I’m glad to know the rest of the book is very good, and also glad to be prepared to find something different than the essay I’m familiar with. It’s kind of too bad she didn’t do more with grammar, but at least she does have that one wonderful essay.

    And I swear, I’m going to pick up the Malcolm book ASAP …

  8. Both books sound wonderful but I find Silent Woman especially appealing. I’m sure I’d like the Morano book too, but I also think you may have just helped me find a Christmas present for my sister who adores all forms of travel writing. Thanks for that!

  9. Interesting point on the Malcom’s book. It resonates with the Bayard’s I’ve just reviewed where we are encouraged to imagine alternative scenarios in fiction as well, just in the same way that truth in real life is always complicated.

  10. Dorothy – how about that! I think I do remember reading that some of the essays had been published elsewhere. Morano has a lovely voice, and one you would appreciate, Dorothy. And I long to know what you make of the Malcolm. Stefanie – how nice to think you might get this for your sister! I love it when I find present problems solved in my blog reading. And I really think you would like the Malcolm. It’s such an incisive and insightful account. Smithereens – I very much enjoyed your review of the Bayard and must get hold of it myself. It’s quite a radical thought to rewrite fiction – I’ll be interested to see how it catches on (because it may well do so).

  11. “In a work of non-fiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.”

    This is brilliant, and certainly true. On a personal level, I was trying to explain to my son last week, that you can’t necessarily believe what someone tells you. Even your best friend may have a justifiable (in his eyes) reason to lie to you. It turned out to be a hard lesson for my son to learn, and cost him a lot of money. So how can we believe anything we read? I loved that Malcom gave credit to the fiction writer for being the only completely honest writer.

    I am glad you are back, litlove – I love reading your reviews – they seem to just flow out of that pen.

  12. Qugrainne – I’m so glad you liked that part – I loved it myself too. And I am so sorry for your son, but hope that he has reconciled himself to his new, if uncomfortable, knowledge. I think it shows what a pure heart he must have to find it hard to believe in the perfidy of others, but alas, better that he learns. And thank you for your kind words – fifteen years of writing about books undoubtedly plays its part!

  13. Both books sound good, but especially the Malcolm book. Biographies are so interesting, but I think it’s impossible to ever really know the truth about a person (whatever truth means…or facts?). Two people witnessing the same event are bound to have two entirely different ways of explaining what they saw depending on their own perceptions. I like how Malcolm talks about her own experiences sifting through the various accounts. I think I have this book somewhere in my piles, now I need to find it…

  14. Oh, where to start?

    Years and years ago, I used to know Frieda, the daughter of Ted and Sylvia. She’s a wonderful, generous woman, full of talent and charm, and she rarely talked about either of her parents: what she did discuss, however, was all the hurt that had been caused to her family by the people who condemned her father after her mother died.

    I wasn’t there: I don’t know who caused who to do what. I, like Frieda, was a baby when Sylvia died and two full decades passed before I met Frieda. I do know, however, that there are many sides to every story; few people are monsters in isolation, and only become monstrous when they are brought there by circumstance or poor decision-making; and that few people considered or realised the consequences which grew from what was said and done at the time–or in the many decades since.

  15. Danielle – if you do have it, then I’d love to know what you think of it. Malcolm manages to write a story of biography that reads like a detective novel. It’s really good, and I do think you would enjoy it. Jane – oh my goodness me! What a story and how fascinating. What you say lies at the heart of Malcolm’s book – an honest acknowledgement of the real undecidability and ambiguity of life as it is lived, and the dangers of passing judgment on what can only ever be a partial version of an event. I think it’s a message we really ought to heed in our celebrity-watching, hype-obsessed modern age.

  16. Pingback: My Wishlist to Santa Claus… « Smithereens

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