Gimme Some Truth: Conversation with Essayist Randon Billings Noble

I met essayist Randon Billings Noble at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. As I remember it, all of our conversations were either about music (she studied classical violin and plays piano) or “nonfiction.” That’s how it is at residencies, and man, am I missing that now. Anyway, back in June 2013 Randon posted this as a Facebook status:

randon_noble_FB

 

… and write about. I asked Randon if she’d engage in an email conversation about matters nonfiction. Here’s how that went.

DL: So, these books and the Hemingway quote challenged your way of thinking about truth. What were your thoughts on truth and writing previously?

RBN: When I taught creative writing I used a terrific book — Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola — that had a whole section on creative nonfiction ethics. They claim that the essayist “pledges, in some way, both to be as honest as possible with the reader and to make this conversation worthwhile.” This to me speaks to the two halves of the term “creative nonfiction.”  “Creative” refers to the style (which uses the same techniques as fiction: scene, character, dialogue, etc.), “nonfiction” to the content.

Human memory is fallible but in many cases it’s all we have. Besides, our individual memories are what make our individual stories. We could both be in the same room at the same time and experience the same thing, but our memories (and retellings) of that experience could be very, very different.

I always told my students to “be loyal to memory.” And if you have to stray from it, let your reader know. I still believe that. But reading David Sheilds’s Reality Hunger made me a little more … flexible in my expectations.

DL: “Flexible in my expectations.” I like that. Has it made you more flexible in your nonfiction writing?

RBN: Not at all!  I still stick to (what I know as) the truth as closely as I can.

DL: I had a similar encounter with Werner Herzog. I was itching to make a documentary, but I had no interest in making a call to action film or an issue film. No interest and I wouldn’t know how to. I’m not a journalist, I’m a storyteller. Still, I thought there are “nonfiction” stories I want to tell. At some point I came across a phrase Herzog likes to use: “ecstatic truth.” Here it is in context:

“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” [http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/herzogs-minnesota-declaration-defining-ecstatic-truth]

 This was liberating. It’s not so much that it gave me the freedom to play fast and loose with facts, but it gave me the freedom to structure the documentary how I wanted — I didn’t need to adhere to chronology; it gave me the freedom to be more impressionistic than journalistic. One example: in one part of A Life’s Work, one of the subjects, Jill Tarter, is talking about her childhood and the gender roles that existed in the 50s. She recalls a conversation she had with her parents and how her father told her she could buck those roles and become an engineer if she worked hard enough. During her telling of this story I show home movies of young girls in dresses curtseying, and a shot of a man encouraging a young girl to walk. A viewer might think these are Tarter’s home movies, because that’s how they’ve been conditioned to think about such juxtapositions, but they’re not. They’re my family’s home movies. And to be clear, my goal in using those home movies is not to fool anyone. I actually want to do this and similar things throughout the film so that the viewer comes to realize the film is not only about Jill Tarter and the other subjects, but it’s everyone’s story.

But reader’s/viewer’s expectations are tricky. I’m thinking about that James Frey book. People were drawn to A Million Little Pieces because, “holy crap, this really happened!” And when they found it didn’t, everyone felt betrayed. I’m curious to hear your take on that whole affair.

RBN: To me, the sad thing about the Frey affair was the potentially high stakes of his readers’ expectations. Frey presents himself as stopping his addictions based on a simple decision and not any kind of process or program. This could be a very dangerous (and false!) example to others. Frey also breaks the rules that Miller and Paola set out in Tell It Slant —  he aggrandizes himself by intensifying his drug and alcohol abuse, lengthening his time in jail, and fabricating his near-rescue of his suicidal girlfriend.

When I was teaching creative nonfiction I used two examples from Annie Dillard’s work to explore creative nonfiction ethics. She has revealed, in interviews, that she made up the cat at the beginning of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the date of a future solar eclipse in her essay Total Eclipse. I ask my students which fabrication bothers them more — a cat used to make metaphors or a specific date? After some discussion I reveal that both bother me. It’s the essayists (and documentarian’s?) job to spin meaningful gold from the hay of everyday life. You don’t get to just make it up!

I like what Herzog says about “poetic, ecstatic truth” but I still want to have at least some hint that I’m entering that zone.

The purpose of David Shields’s Reality Hunger is to question the line between fiction and nonfiction, and to ask who really owns ideas anyway. Shields was required by his publisher’s lawyers to list as many of the uncredited sources in Reality Hunger as he could, although Shields makes a direct plea for the reader to ignore this appendix and there are even dotted lines to encourage the reader to cut this section out of the book entirely! Because of the aim of his book and his cheeky response to the demands of legality I admire what he achieves even if I’m not sure I agree with it.

I feel rather the same way about writers who cloak autobiography under the subtitle of “novel,” like Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted or Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be? I’d rather read a story that’s mostly true but called fiction than a story that claims to be true but is partially made up. But then I feel like this isn’t fair to novelists who spend a great deal of time and energy creating fictional worlds instead of harvesting broad swaths of their own experience.

So although my thinking may be becoming more flexible, I’m not double jointed.

DL: So do we need to come up with words for these slippery genres so that readers/viewers are more flexible in their expectations? (Personally, I think “documentary” is inadequate.)

RBN: Maybe. Or maybe there just needs to be some kind of acknowledgment in the work that parts of it are speculative. I admire the way Scott McClanahan does it in his recent book Crapalachia. In the “Appendix and Notes” section he thoughtfully and stylishly lists the places where he veers from the truth and explains why he did it. Perhaps because it was thoughtful and stylish I wasn’t offended at being misled but grateful for McClanahan’s honesty and rationale.

Do you have a term for these “slippery” genres?  Especially within the larger genre of film?

 DL: I wish I did. Film essay is pretty good, but sounds a little pretentious to my ears.

Here’s a gift a friend gave me. I keep it on my desk. 

painting? photograph?
painting? photograph?

I’m looking for a word or phrase that conveys what this object is doing. Here is a “real” place captured during a “real” moment (the photo), but there is artifice surrounding it. It is neither photograph nor painting, but both. (Side note: And then of course there’s the painted snake. In this image you can’t make out its head from its tail, but in the original its head is approaching the photo. And  it has its tongue out, no less.)

One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation is each of us working in the “nonfiction” realm need to decide which lines we are comfortable crossing and which ones we are not. I’m not comfortable with re-enactments. I think when Errol Morris does them they work, but he’s the exception (and exceptional). I don’t really “stage” things, though I’m sure relative to some hardcore cinema verite dudes, what I do is very staged. I will ask a subject to do something (“Can you walk through that door?” “Can you look through that record bin again?”) but I will never ask them to repeat an answer “this time with more enthusiasm/anger/sadness” etc. That being said, there are times when I do ask a subject to repeat something, when a police siren ruins a take, for example. And I will ask a key question a few times, phrasing it differently so I have a range of responses to choose from. But that’s a journalist tactic, too. It’s all pretty gray.

Do you have lines you are more comfortable crossing and others you are not?

RBN: I love the photograph in the painted frame!  I was thinking about using the word “frame” as part of a new term to describe a work of nonfiction with something not 100% nonfiction about it. Instead of a word I kept thinking of an image of fabric, where one thread of many was slightly different. Still, maybe something like “la realite encadree” (framed reality)?

My lines are pretty firm. The one thing I think nonfiction writers can safely do is omit things. But even then you have to be careful not to let the omission skew the story you’re trying to convey or the idea you’re trying to explore. But a writer  — even an essayist  — has a right to privacy.  And sometimes you need to protect the privacy of others. But any other time I stray from the truth I try to cue the reader. “I was probably six years old” or “I imagine she must have said …” or “Perhaps I went to the park or perhaps I went straight home.” I try to give a quick cue and then get out of the way so the scene can continue. But I imagine it’s more difficult with film!

Still, I think it’s vital that we try to convey the truth as we know it, while acknowledging that all truths are always “as we know them.”

Thanks, Randon!

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books and elsewhere.  She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

 

How do you handle the truth? What do you call it? Nonfiction? Creative nonfiction? Memoir? Essay? Documentary? Film essay? Does it matter? Get it on the conversation.

More interviews here!

 

[cross-posted on ExtraCriticum.com]