I think more than you’d suppose about Annie Dillard’s cat. Also, Vivian Gornick’s mother. Many of you will see already where I’m going with this. Some of you will already have an opinion on what makes that cat and that mother different from a boy who jumped from a roof of a casino one night, or another, in 2003.
I write literal truth, actual nonfiction. I tell readers exactly what happened, any ways my knowledge of an event is limited, and my bias for or against it, and I make no composite characters (I’m particularly proud of that, too proud no doubt). Life is insanely unbelievable enough, each life rich enough for two lifetimes. I don’t even make up dialogue that is more than one sort of organically transcribed step from verbatim. I may also tell you that an event makes me think of, even “see,” unicorns and leprechauns, but you will understand if I do so that I am speaking metaphorically, or at the very least, claiming only my own experience, not the facts of the experience at large. I’m just like that. I come from a family in which every single member might remember whole decades differently and then proceed to hinge our future personalities on it. So our interpretations are broad. But our factual claims are parsed down to the most excruciating, politest line where our own memory meets the other’s with the least violence. We hate to argue on uncertain ground.
On the one hand, facts. On the other hand, feelings. Desires. Wishes. The kind of memories that are packaged like wedding dresses in clouds of archival cushioning, a sort of tissue paper of bruises and heart squeezes and gasps.
I admire with a hot and sweeping lust the writer Anne Carson, who it seems to me could not give any fewer shits about literal truth but commits wantonly to an emotional reality. Here’s the fairy forest, the beginning of each piece seems to indicate, the mouth of the Labyrinth. Once you’ve reached the center – she shrugs – You are confused maybe? But I told you where we were going, and you said yes. Opposite to this on the spectrum of my trust, and thus my love, are writers like James Frey (poor man, short-hand among us for liar) and John D’Agata, the author in About a Mountain of the boy who jumped from the casino roof a certain night; though on the actual night the boy jumped, the boy is the author of his own life, and others can only relay his facts. When I read a piece that I believe to be true – not tricky in its form, not winky in its rhetoric, not magically realistic in its content – then I expect it to be true. I do not want to fall in love under false pretenses. D’Agata is my boyfriend who tells me he has no other girlfriends, only for me to realize, months later, that he means they are not girlfriends because he does not call them that, and so.
What has all of this to do with cats and mothers?
Annie Dillard begins a memoir of hers, the justly well-regarded Pilgrimage at Tinker Creek, with a passage about her cat jumping onto her and leaving bloody footprints. The blood, I think, distracted people from ever putting too much thought into the cat, least of all its provenance, and anyway, who would wonder at it, a solitary female writer owning a cat, the least surprising development in a memoir perhaps ever. Only at a reading as she was asked about her work did she as she answered supply this electrifying fact: the cat was not hers.
Well, who cares? People apparently. Readers had been told it was her cat, by her. I used to have a cat, she’d said. Still, in the end, it really wasn’t that important. It’s fine, we’re fine. But we had been burned by other untruths from other authors, and it stung, and now there it stands as a cautionary tale to other memoirists. No one wants to be caught with a cat that isn’t theirs.
What stuck for me was really only this. How could such a capable writer, one who connects me so deeply to the whole of the wide and mysterious everyday world, miss such an opportunity for metaphor? The cat of a neighbor, the cat-at-large of the neighborhood, knows her with such intimacy that it would leap through her bedroom window to her, step lightly onto her chest, and print her with its last mission, from the streets across her into the bedsheets, as the author wakes up to the world herself?
It’s hard to write. Sometimes fewer words work better. She was on her way to another, perhaps better, point. All of that can be true, and still. No one wants to be caught with that cat again.
Gornick’s mother in Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments got a composite treatment in which Gornick collapsed multiple conversations into one or two. You are maybe now getting a sense either of the exacting drive for truth that drives memoir, or a sense that perhaps we need additional hobbies. But the fact is, it matters, this imprecision. It is slippery. One likes to know where it is, and where it isn’t. Gornick is an agile writer, like Dillard, and choose this for narrative reasons easily understood. I think writers reacted badly to Gornick’s admission – again, made by herself in a craft conversation with students – because it worried them not in and of itself but because under it writers sensed an abyss. It was a gateway choice. After it, what? A life imagined whole cloth? James Frey?
No. After it, we address the humans that are writers at play. Memoir is not after all autobiography. You will see why I am so forgiving of Dillard and Gornick’s narrative manifest destiny momentum, and will marvel at how I have the cajones to talk badly about my boyfriend John D’Agata.
Time and I are intimates. Not sexy intimate but the kind where pillowcases smell like the head of the person who sleeps there and also the way you accidently stare at the lines on your partner’s face of fifteen years instead of remembering to listen to them talk sometimes, or maybe that’s just me. The kind of intimacy you never pursued on purpose.
I track time like a jealous lover, because I am fearful of death. I used to think something in my memory I had yet to unlodge stuck that fear there, something in the way I learned about death. That my father became a priest when I was around ten and I was faced with theology and existentialism at such a combustible age? That the extreme force of will I was born with couldn’t change this one thing ever? The time when my teacher told a room of fourth graders that the sun would be imploding some day and would be taking our descendants with it, but not to worry, humankind might be kaput by then anyway? Was that the day? In any case, I have begun to think it is genetic because my very young daughter worries with it too, like another loose tooth.
And in my obsessive account-taking of time that I call “writing nonfiction,” I did fall in a sort of love with time. We became familiar. I watch its movements as closely as I might a Brassai photograph held to a lamplight: Paris was good that year, that kiss will always have happened, that woman was young once too. It is a lover who will leave me, I am sure of it, but while it is here I will never take for granted its lush face, its deliberate pace, its follies and humors, the moments when I can feel the force of it on me. It is intimate, as I said, my attention.
So when I wrote my first book, a memoir, the only thing I tinkered with truth-wise was time. I knew just how to do; it seemed fair, it was my familiar, and I knew well what worked on it. Other people are other people. I would never mess with their lives. Ask anyone who has read the book: I was extremely fair to other people. Hey, reviews say it. Also, I was accurate about the place I lived to an anthropological degree. No fact-checker would need to wonder about the miles that truly lie between Salt Lake City and Wellsville, Utah, nor about the mores and habits of my Mormon neighborhood from dusk to dawn. The dialogue of everyone is just what they said, the wonderous puzzle of humans saying crazy amazing things or perfectly exemplary every day things just replicated lovingly in the text.
But writers: I moved before the book was done. And the book was about being there.
The infraction is so slight. One trip taken after I moved is included in the timeline as having happened last, just before I moved. But I’ve thought about it a lot. I’m glad I did it too (she says defensively) because in thinking about this narrative choice, I learned something very important.
I think no one writes more beautifully about temporal moments than Virginia Woolf. I’m not the first one to think this – her essay and collection both called “Moments of Being” are anthologized and taught widely – but I’m one of the cadre of readers who believe it. No one else has honored so well those moments that fall in between other moments, the ones that define us in ways we can’t explain when we aren’t looking for it, so much better than those moments we work ourselves up for and stand on the top of the mountain for, waiting on the lightning and the tablets to be passed down. And my time as I left such a beloved place was full of this, the inconveniently sublime. Maudlin ridiculous moments patting trees and sides of houses, hikes of pilgrimage and exodus on days of horrible weather, sitting on my dogs’ graves speaking, it must have appeared, in tongues, to nothing. And in these ways the occasion on which I returned to Utah, the place of the book, after I’d moved, well, it was not on a different timeline. My address had changed but my head hadn’t budged. Splitting hairs? Sure. But did it affect anyone else? No.
And so that’s where my line is. If Vivian Gornick wants to mishmash all her deceased mother’s conversations into one, she’s allowed under my own law of creative nonfiction. She’s feeling it. I’m unlikely to do that largely because I am interested in the mundane aggravation of seemingly worthless time (see above, re: me and Time’s love affair) and what it reveals on further investigation, i.e. all the times our mothers don’t say anything “worth” recounting. But I haven’t tried to telescope forty years of conversations yet, so don’t count me out.
I wrote once that memoir is held by a “tensile strength.” I think unacknowledged untruth, in nonfiction, is the un-annealer, the ruiner of metals and bonds, the thing that anti-climactically releases the tension of the narrative into disparate parts. I think that the truth of this unbelievable life, well-considered and well-loved with the attention of craft and retrospection, is the spring we can’t stop pressing together if only to watch it work over and over, jumping in our hands like a live thing.
Liz Stephens is the author of the memoir The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press. She has served as Managing Editor of Brevity, was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in an upcoming anthology Dirt: A Love Story from University of New England Press.