Recently I put a question to writer-types in my social spaces: what is your least favorite thing about the nonfiction reading experience (besides writers who lie)? I got close to 80 responses, mostly from poets and fictionists, very particular, very vehement: the perceived “narcissism” of memoir (of course), the classist lens of New Journalism, lyric overkill, unnecessary narrative intrusion, “ambulance chasing”—it was a stunning array of ticks that seem to piss people off in a monumental way. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t, but the one that’s stuck closest with me came from a friend I’ll call Annie, a fictionist whose stories tend to bind a humane messiness to the most tired of genre tropes, somehow fueling each with a new, strange life. “The performance of certainty around massively complicated life stuff,” Annie wrote. “The desire to simplify and explain the mysterious.”
I’ve been thinking about this concept since, the “performance of certainty.” Now is maybe the most digestible era for creative forms of nonfiction. Sharing modes have turned the genre more mobile and transferrable than it’s ever been—from #longreads curation to rapid-fire thinkpieces to the Shields-y bloom of the section-numbered, lyrical rumination. But there’s a brand of creative nonfiction that has seemed to thrive more than any other: a kind of blunt confessor’s tale, a one-thousandish-word personal story of often high, earnest stakes and utter danger, where a writer unveils a painful scenario they’ve either survived or endured or been implicated in. You’ve seen these pieces. They’ve shown up in your feeds with accompanying comments like “thank you for writing this,” or “beautiful” or “so brave” or just simply “this.” They’re very often pegged to a news item or pop culture strain but just as often stick to the deeply, deeply, personal, offering a firm, closing insight or a revelation. Its almost a genre, formed in close response to its medium—what to call these pieces? Micro-memoirs? Candids? Unburdenings?—and there are many reasons for their success. The best of them are written so skillfully, with a pitch and momentum that feels acutely visceral (and like with all genres, there are those who elevate beyond even that: Rachel Monroe’s strange, prescient and mindful pieces for The Awl. Matthew Salesses’s still, driving “Love, Recorded” column for The Good Men Project). They’re satisfying, almost addictive reads in that way: as readers, we get to lean in closely to listen to the careful voice of someone’s deeply held secret.
Though I suspect the leading reason for their popularity is the exact reason people like Annie tend to bristle. So many seem built to coax a simple, particular response in a reader upon a piece’s bandage-tear epiphany: To click a “like” button. Or a “favorite” button. So brave. This. Given the modes of consumption in which these pieces thrive, the responses make sense to the work at the heart of it. In other words, these pieces not only display the performance of certainty, but manage to transfer that performance to the reader as well.
For the modern origins of this kind of tale (or better, our responses to it) one could look to the mid-aughts success of Frank Warren’s PostSecret project, which expanded an online audience for the artful presentation of the contained confessional. But when it comes to how those tales often appear in “literary” form—and, more specifically, how they tend to conclude—This American Life’s Ira Glass might be a better origin point. While hardly the first to lean on the technique, Glass has been open for years about the anecdote/reflection building blocks of each of the show’s radio pieces, personal or not, and it’s difficult not to see that influence on storyslam culture, and then, further, on the micro-confessions that now decorate literary social feeds. And make no mistake—it’s good to be reflective. And it’s good to leave it all on the page. Every successful piece needs a negotiated harmony between both halves (situation, story, etc.). But does reflection or insight in nonfiction always have to take the form of certitude?
“Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists,” Philip Lopate wrote in The Art of the Personal Essay, and I believe Lopate’s comment is directly in line with Annie’s, as well as the many who (ironically) “liked” what she had to say. So how can we infuse the performance of uncertainty into our nonfiction narratives yet still keep it digestible, sharable and affecting? How can we shape our short nonfiction with the kind insight that accommodates the similar, thrilling complexities found in the best fiction and poetry (and theater and painting and so on)? To move towards something more ethereal and probing, beyond so brave? Beyond this?
One of my favorite travelogues of the last few years, Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War, is a work of incertitude at its most confident. Haunted for years about her own motivations, as a college freshman, to follow her older, religious boyfriend to South America in order to ingrain, horribly, to the fizzling Sandinista movement—Unferth sets out on a spiritual detective mission to locate the whereabouts of her own shed self. Her tales are frightening, hilarious and wrenching, interspersed with passages from the present-day, truth-seeking Unferth, retracing her old steps as if attempting to re-enact a fugue. The insight-heavy passages don’t come often, but when they do, what you get isn’t a writer making sense of a strange, formative, and traumatic experience, but rather a writer depicting the nagging futility of that reflex. “Why would this trip mean so much,” she writes about 130 pages in, after detailing a multi-day stint of debilitating sickness, “that I’d have to keep going back to find it?”
Unferth raises the stakes—and the messiness—of her search just a few passages later. At this point in Revolution young Unferth’s trip, goals, and relationship have failed brilliantly. Unferth finds herself abandoned in a Costa Rican motel room, weak to the point of delirium, “awake or asleep or dead or dying,” her life, she’s sure, in dire jeopardy. It’s the type of bleak, high-octane writing that’s often seen in today’s online unburdenings, that knifeblade-to-the-throat pitch, one that might be used, by a different writer, to yield a thud of heartbreaking reflection, a sermon almost about what it all means, then a dropping of the mic. But rather than rely on the mere fact of her predicament to deliver the drama, what does Unferth do with that opportunity instead? She wants to talk about balls.
I was on the phone with my grandmother. She’d always been nice to me—my grandfather too—quiet and calm, giving me a bowl of sliced fruit. “You’re not cut out for this,” she said on the phone. “Let me bring you home,” as if I were a ball thrown straight up into the sky. The ball goes up, slows, and for a second it comes to a standstill in the air, torn between acceleration and gravity. There’s always the chance that it will keep going up, that the Earth will release its hold at last. Maybe that’s why we throw balls?
All I thought in that pause was, Huh? I could go home?
There are more writers who do this—who expand the reach (and transfer the power) of their personal stories by being forthright with the nebulous struggle of that story’s burden on them, less so with the exactitude of the story’s meaning. I’m thinking here of the double-backing and pained self-inquisitions of Donald Antrim’s staggered, boundless memoir The Afterlife (see: “I Bought A Bed”), or the detective-like force of Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, which seems beyond any book I’ve read recently the most interested in posing only the perfectly-built, unanswerable question.
But we’re talking about the Internet here. I know. We’re talking scrolling and scanning and bite-sized-ness, quick hits and swift impact, not the years-long, book length perspective afforded to Unferth and Antrim and Manguso. One to twelve-hundred words—that’s likely the editor-sanctioned range one gets for one of these pieces, which is, in digestible terms, the difference between The Sopranos full series run and an episode of Jackass. Is there room for true pathos and well-built, reflective uncertainty in that frame?
But then there’s Cutter Wood, who in 2010 published the 1300-word essay “Golden Ages” in the “Readings” section of Harper’s. Like the web’s unburdenings, the piece is compact, guttural, topic-driven, yet brazen in its uncertainty, reveling in it even. Here’s just the beginning:
History does not tell us when human beings first began to keep their own urine, but we may suppose that in our younger, more nomadic years, the saving of urine, still not yet formalized, took place on a case-by-case basis. Only with the Neolithic Revolution and the ensuing shift to somewhat stationary lifestyles would the reservation of urine even have been given the opportunity to blossom into a concerted, culturally significant activity. Yet it seems that little urine was kept.
Wood goes on like this, taking his reader through the guts of history on a knowing, entrancing wave of maybe and perhaps: how the early communes of the Romanian Cucuteni “may have saved their urine,” on through to urine-saving or non-urine-saving eras of the Scythians and the Huns, to ancient Mesopotamia and how all of these people “were aware of urine” yet left no clues as to how it was first stored. The whole piece is at once a parody of academe presentation-speak, a tour of the shifting roles of our own body fluids throughout governed humanity (at one point Wood contends that the Roman Empire’s “urine conservationists” were “perhaps unrivaled in the history of the world”), and finally a speculative, moving rumination on our collective, bitter history of death-fear. But even in at its most contemplative moments, Wood rarely takes the piece toward anything reflectively definite. “And even though it was relatively customary for commoners as well as royalty to be entombed with a toilet during the Han Dynasty,” Wood writes, “this seems to indicate not a desire to save urine but a presentiment that even into the afterlife it would pursue our hapless souls.” Urine, in the essay, slyly stands in for a greater elusiveness, and it’s in the work of conjuring that grand elusiveness that Wood is able—again, in just 1300 words—to reach a fevered closure of wild, productive messiness, yet still remain allegiant to a familiar, digestible style.
But there’s no need to trace back our cultural history of urine to examine the unleashable power of uncertainty in nonfiction, the ways in which it can take a great, transformative hold on us, even when we get it in short, digital chunks. We only have to look to earlier this year, to the confounding disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the ensuing loop of turgid media speculation that followed in the weeks (and weeks and weeks) after; the theories that event gave birth to, the subtle desperation contained in the pockets of those theories, and what those theories taught us about us. Or, as Pico Iyer put it in the Times, “We imagine how those with loved ones on the plane must be trying to fill the absence, of knowledge as well as of their sons or wives, and how they may fear, even if at times they long for, certainty…we translate the story into our own lives, and think about how the things we don’t know haunt and possess us as the things we do seldom can.”