From Annie Dillard’s “To Fashion a Text”

The following passages are often quoted and you can find them on various blogs and web sites. I first encountered the piece in a collection of essays on the memoir by William Zinsser. These selected passages are about nonfiction and I find it more curious that they were written in the 1980’s. (Italics added.)

* * *

Let me put in a word now for a misunderstood genre: literary nonfiction. It’s interesting to me because I try to write it and because I respect the art of it very much.

I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to be able to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, “This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.” But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that a reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.

It’s not simply that they’re carefully written, or vivid and serious and pleasing, like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, say, or St. Exupery’s wonderful memoir of early aviation, Wind, Sand, and Stars. It’s not even that they may contain elements of fiction, that their action reveals itself in scenes that use visual descriptions and that often use dialogue. It’s not just these things, although these things are important. It’s that nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea. (It is especially helpful if the writer so fully expresses the idea in materials that only a trained technician can find it. Because of the abstract nature of a given text, which is of great interest to the writer and serves to rouse him out of bed in the morning and impel him to the desk, is of little or no interest to the reader, and he’d  better not forget it.)

Nonfiction accounts don’t ordinarily meet these criteria, but they may. Walden Pond is the linchpin of a metaphysic. In repeated and self-conscious rewritings, Thoreau hammered at its unremarkable and rather dreary acres until they fastened eternity in time and stood for the notion that the physical world itself expresses a metaphysical one. He picked up that pond and ran with it. He could just as readily have used something else – a friend, say, or a chestnut.

You can do quite a bit with language.

Hemingway in Green Hills of Africa wrote a sober narrative account of killing a kudu, the whole of which functions as an elaborate metaphor for internal quests and conquests. Loren Eiseley lays in narrative symbols with a trowel, splashing mortar all over the place, but they hold. In his essay “The Star-Thrower,” Eiseley’s beachcomber who throws dying starfish back into the surf stands for any hope or mercy that flies in the face of harsh natural law. He stands finally for the extravagant spirit behind creation as a whole; he is a god hurling solar systems into the void.

I only want to remind my writing colleagues that a great deal can be done in nonfiction, especially in first-person accounts where the writer controls the materials absolutely. Because other literary genres are shrinking. Poetry has purified itself right out of the ballpark. Literary fiction is scarcely being published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art. All that the unknown writer of fiction can do is to tell his friends about the book he has written, and all that his friends can say is “Good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it can’t handle the things that most engage our hearts and minds. But literary nonfiction is all over the map and has been for three hundred years. There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.

When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.

From her description, what Dillard was describing at the time was what came to be known first as The New Journalism and now as Creative Non-Fiction. Agree?



About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
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