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Not Just the Facts
by Joel Yanofsky

There's an alchemy involved in turning the details of (what really happened' into creative non-fiction

If only I could invent as presumptuously as life.

Philip Roth

SINCE 1992 I'VE TAUGHT a continuing-education course on autobiographical writing and I'm always surprised by the same thing: how preoccupied my students are with the facts. I know I shouldn't be. After all, the facts are what they own, what they show up with and offer to me as a kind of collateral against the anxiety and ambivalence they feel on finding themselves where they are, doing what they're doing -- attempting to transform their life, or at least a small chunk of it, into a story.

Another reason I shouldn't be surprised is that nearly 20 years ago, when I began to write about my mother's death from cancer -- the first piece I would ever sell, as it turned out -- the facts were all I had, too. I thought of them, then, as my secret weapon and, heaven knows, I needed one. I was angry at everyone: relatives, friends, the doctors, the rabbi, God, myself. I wanted to know why this had happened. I wanted revenge. I wanted my mother back. And I wrote as if the words on the page would accomplish that. I have never felt more driven, more inspired. But when I reread what I had written, I also realized it wasn't enough. Everyone has a mother, it occurred to me in a cold-blooded instant of pure literary detachment, and everyone's mother dies. I have disliked myself often since then, but never as much.

Still, there it was. If I wanted to write something that would be interesting to someone other than myself, I would have to turn what had happened into a story. That meant rearranging or elaborating on the facts to suit my needs. That meant creating a structure, other characters, dialogue, and a point of view: making myself, for example, seem even more bitter and confused than I already was. But mainly it meant my mother's death would have to become secondary to the story I wanted to tell.

Invariably, this is a difficult point to get across to the people who take my course. Most of them are mature students, in their fifties or older, most have their own heartbreaking stories to tell of surviving the Holocaust or recovering from an illness or a difficult pregnancy or a devastating divorce, and most react badly to the notion that the detaiIs of their lives are, well, flexible. Although they usually start out by saying that they don't even know why they are taking the course or what they expect to get out of it, secretly, subconsciously, they do. They want to tell how things happened to them, exactly how, in the proper context and sequence, with every particular intact. Most of all, they don't want to leave anything out.

My job is to encourage them to leave out whatever they can and add whatever they need. To stop worrying about the facts that make up their story and start worrying about the story itself. To understand that a true story, like an invented one, isn't authentic just because it is true, but because a writer has worked hard to make it authentic. Which is, incidentally, as close to a definition of that otherwise fuzzy, undefinable term creative non-fiction as I am prepared to get.

OF COURSE, the concept of creative nonfiction is fuzzy enough already without any help from me. Writing in the April 1993 issue of this magazine, Susan Crean correctly pointed out that it was stupid to attach " 'creative' to writing of any kind -- we don't ... have departments of creative music or programs in creative architecture, do we?" She went on to add that "dressing non-fiction up with words like 'creative' simply doesn't cut it." For better or worse, this is a perception that lingers.

Last February when Charles Foran was asked to read at Harbourfront, he had two new books to choose from, his first novel, Kitchen Music, published in the fall of 1994, and The Last House of Ulster, a work of nonfiction published just a few weeks before the reading. Foran was leaning towards the newer book when his decision was made for him. Greg Gatenby, the artistic director of the Harbourfront Reading Series, insisted he read from the novel. Foran explained that The Last House of Ulster was creative nonfiction. Gatenby was unimpressed. "Yeah," he said, "that's what the guys who write golf books tell me."

Gatenby's scornful attitude is understandable. As literary labels go, creative non-fiction is not just nebulous, it's downright condescending -- the adjective "creative" included as a kind of consolation prize, a way of patting non-fiction writers on the head and saying, "Don't worry, you're creative too, just not as creative as the men and women who write novels and short stories."

When it comes to prejudging The Last House of Ulster, though, Gatenby couldn't have been more wrong. Foran's chronicle of the McNallys, a middle-class, Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is funny and tender and one of the best Canadian books I've read in years -- fiction or non-fiction. (The press release from the publisher, HarperCollins, refers to Foran's book as creative non-fiction, but then goes on to cover every conceivable base except rhyming couplets, calling it a mix of "travelogue, memoir, essay, and politics in an accessible form for readers who covet information, but not at the expense of narrative and description.") Labels aside, The Last House of Ulster succeeds as well as it does because its concerns are private, not public and because its approach is literary, not journalistic.

From the start, Foran dispenses with objectivity and focuses on his 15-year friendship with the McNallys. He relies on his memory to recreate dialogue. ("Even in non-fiction, I see people I'm writing about as characters," he said during a recent interview, "you can't let them say what they want to say. They have to say what you need them to say.") He turns himself, as the narrator, into a character, often playing straight man or fool, exaggerating his incomprehension of events. And near the end of the book, on his final visit to Belfast to complete his research, he concedes what his readers have known all along -- that his affection for the McNallys is the heart and soul of the book:

I considered renting a hotel room and simply ringing the McNallys, maybe dropping by for tea. The distance would have been beneficial. James (the McNally father) worries when guests stay out after dark. Maureen (the McNally mother) appreciates a call during the day. What researcher works with a curfew? What journalist calls home at lunch?

I stay with the McNallys. I have never spent a night in Belfast except within their walls. I have never thought of the city without thinking of them. I ring Maureen at around noon each day to inform her of my movements; I return each night before dark.

When you've been reviewing books regularly for more than a decade, as I have, you start to hope for something rare or innovative to come along, something that will astonish you and break new ground. Then you read The Last House of Ulster and you realize that's not what you wanted at all. You wanted something a lot more rare, a lot more astonishing -- an honest, intimate story.

I've always looked to fiction for that kind of intimacy; nowadays, though, nonfiction is just as likely to provide it. In an age where Oprah and Geraldo are coaxing confessions out of guests daily, where we know more than we want to know about 0. J. Simpson and Hugh Grant, you might think that the one thing we don't need is another personal story. But the opposite is true. There is a real absence of personal stories that are genuinely personal, that are not self-serving or doctored or trivial. In other words, stories that are allowed the latitude to be ambiguous, contradictory, human. Perhaps that's why even writers renowned for their fiction like John Updike, Philip Roth, and V. S. Naipaul have done some of their best recent work (Self-Consciousness, Patrimony, and A Way in the World respectively) by dispensing with the filter of invention.

Likewise, some of the most compelling books published in this country in recent years have been memoirs. In addition to The Last House of Ulster, I'm thinking of David Macfarlane's The Danger Tree (199 1), Karen Connelly's Touch the Dragon (1992), Ernest Hillen's The Way of a Boy (1993), Clark Blaise's I Had a Father (1993), and Sharon Butala's The Perfection of the Morning (1994). What these books have in common is that they all take the traditional subject matter of non-fiction -politics, history, travel, sociology, nature -- and enrich it with memory and personal experience. The result is something closer to autobiographical fiction than non-fiction.

CLARK BLAISE has been writing about his own life -- his father and mother, their troubled marriage and eventual divorce -- ever since his first collection of short stories, A North American Education, appeared 22 years ago. What's more, he has never made a secret of the fact that this was his turf and that "like a dog tied to a post and then forgotten" he had "sniffed every inch of (it) ... dug it up ... soiled it." Which made it even more surprising when Blaise felt the need two years ago to switch from autobiographical fiction to autobiography with I Had a Father.

You might have even suspected Blaise of jumping on the memoir bandwagon -- "it's in the air these days, middle- aged children calling their parents back," he says in I Had a Father -- except that he had already begun to explore the blurring line between fact and fiction several years earlier in Resident Alien (1986), a fascinating mix of personal essays and short stories. In "The Voice of Unhousement," the essay that introduces the collection, Blaise says: "It's alchemy, taking the facts, the common language, the world and characters we know, and transforming them into something never before seen, hitherto unknown and forever fresh." And while Blaise is talking about autobiographical fiction here, he could just as easily be talking about creative non-fiction.

Maybe that's because one is really the flip side of the other. Another fiction writer, Sharon Butala, found this out when she began working on The Perfection of the Morning, a memoir of her years spent living on a cattle ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan. In her preface, she admits that

there's a way in which all non-fiction is fiction: the backward search through happenstance, trivia, the flotsam and jetsam of life to search out a pattern, themes, a meaning is by its nature an imposition of order onto what was chaotic. It's an attempt to give a linearity to events, many psychic, which had no linearity, which, if anything, were a spiral, or had more the hectic quality of a dream .... In writing what the world will call autobiography, I am torn between the facts and history and the truth of the imagination, and it is to the latter, finally, in terms of my personal history, that I lean.

So whether it's Blaise talking about ,"alchemy" or Butala about "the backward search through ... the flotsam and jetsam of life," what both seem to be acknowledging is that it is just as much of a challenge to create something out of something as something out of nothing. Of course, this is not a surprise to anyone who writes. "We are all in the business of trying to make a good story out of whatever materials we can find," as David Huddle said in an essay on autobiographical fiction in the New York Times Book Review. Still, creative non-fiction does have one advantage over fiction: you leam quickly that no matter how hard you try you will never be able, in Philip Roth's words, "to invent as presumptously as life."

Here's an example of what I mean: a few years ago I attended a parade marking Montreal's 350th anniversary. I was there because I was writing a magazine column about the city's celebrated joie de vivre. In the column, I was playing the part of a spoilsport and the point I wanted to make but didn't seem to be able to was that maybe we were all trying too hard to have fun. That was when a young woman walked by me wearing a live, large black rat, jaunty as a party hat, on her head. I had my ending. She'd made my point for me, better than I ever could have.

This is what I call my "theory of stuff' in my autobiography course. Since the term generally brings a puzzled stare from my students, I'll explain it. Stuff is what you couldn't make up in a million years and even if you did no one would believe you. To be a writer, the first thing you have to do is recognize the stuff that is particular to you. The second thing you have to do is make the most of it.

In addition to reviewing a lot of books over the last 10 years, I've also interviewed a lot of novelists and invariably asked them for the story behind the story. On hearing it, I've been tempted more than once to say, "You wrote the wrong one." Needless to say, I never felt that way reading Touch the Dragon, Karen Connelly's journal of her experience as a precocious Calgary teenager trying to adapt to the language and the culture in a Thai village; or The Way of a Boy, Ernest Hillen's gripping, unsentimental recollection of his childhood in Japanese occupied Java during the Second World War; or The Danger Tree, David Macfarlane's poignant family saga Iife in Newfoundland from just before the First World War to the present.

As creative non-fiction goes, none of the books in this essay are particularly experimental -- in the way, for instance, Brian Fawcett's Gender Wars (1994) or B. W. Powe's Outage (1995) are -- but then what passes for experimentation, as someone once said, is often an elaborate way of avoiding one's feelings at all costs. (My problem, incidentally, with both Gender Wars and Outage is that for all their personal revelations, I always suspected the authors were holding something crucial back.) All the books I've mentioned employ fictional techniques and narrative devices to tell their very different stories, but what I admired most about them, what they all have in common, is their honesty and emotional directness.

With the exception of Connelly's Touch the Dragon, another thing these books have in common is that they haven't been recognized when it has come time to hand out our most important national literary prize for non-fiction -- the Governor General's Award. (The Last House of Ulster will be eligible this year.) Looking back at the history of the Governor General's Award for non-fiction, this isn't surprising. Memoirs and personal journalism have been conspicuous by their absence. (There have been only two exceptions in the last 20 years: Roger Caron's Go Boy in 1978 and Michael Ignatieff's The Russian Album in 1987.) Instead, the award has routinely gone to scholarly works, biographies, and popular histories.

In the long run, awards don't matter much, of course; critical judgements are unpredictable and subject to trends and fashion. Still, it's hard to figure out how a book as accomplished as Macfarlane's The Danger Tree wasn't even short-listed for a GG.

One explanation may be that we are still a nation that has more faith in journalists than artists. (Remember when Barbara Frum died: can you imagine the same kind of public mourning for a poet or a painter in this country?) We make better documentaries than movies. We prefer our facts straight, unfudged, and maybe the opening pages of The Danger Tree in which Macfarlane puts himself inside the mind of his dying grandmother proved to be a problem. "Gone. These people. They come in from somewhere ... Then they go away," Macfarlane writes on her behalf.

Even now, I can imagine one of the jurors saying that he had to be making that stuff about his grandmother up; he couldn't possibly know it. Only Macfarlane does. As in fiction, the truth in The Danger Tree or The Last House of Ulster or any of the other books discussed in this essay is less dependent on reliable sources or footnotes than on the honesty and authenticity of the storytelling. To misunderstand this today -- when the fine between fact and fiction has become, whether we like it or not, indistinguishable -- is to misunderstand the way good writing, no matter how you define it, works.


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