In “The Fact Behind the Facts, or, How You Can Get It All Right and Still Get It All Wrong,” Philip Gerard, Chair of the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington, tells the story of his first front-page byline. As a cub reporter he investigated an incident where a boy had pulled his girlfriend from a car fire and saved her life. Years later Gerard was still pleased when a guy in a bar asked if he’d written that car-fire piece. Then the guy told him he’d left one thing out: The boy had locked his girlfriend in the car and set fire to it himself. In a moment of remorse he broke a window and pulled her out, and that’s the part bystanders witnessed.
“Every fact [in my newspaper article] was true, and yet the story was utterly false,” Gerard says ruefully, stressing the need to ask the “most important question” of context: “What were you doing just before all this happened?”
Gerard’s essay makes a good point, though I still don’t understand how, in the (now) two versions presented, a woman locked in a car can’t pull up the knob on a lock and walk away. Unless we were told she’d been knocked unconscious, that the car was encircled with chains preventing the doors from opening, that she wanted to die, or that she had the faith of Abednego, I still feel uneasy with the story. It sounds like somebody trying to commit suicide by shooting herself in the back with a bow and arrow.
Yet the bigger picture is important, no doubt about it. I used to take students to our campus art museum to play a game we called, “What Do You See, and What Makes You Say That?” We’d stand in front of a painting with some narrative element, and they’d make assertions about what they saw: It’s gloomy. What made them say that? The chiaroscuro shadows half-obscuring tiny figures in some cavernous monastery while a malevolent cardinal-looking figure sat on his throne. What else did they see? A poor woman collapsing in a group of ominous-looking men holding her off to one side, against her will. What made them say “sorry for her”? She was still in her white nightgown, her hair flowing and disheveled. The men wore cloaks with hoods. What else did the students see? Sexism, misogyny, abuse of power, a helpless victim of an inquisition dragged from her bed in the middle of the night.
Wait, a student said. What’s that? We all leaned forward. In the hand of the victim being restrained—maybe not female at all, now that we looked very closely—a butcher knife the length of a forearm. Ah.
We’ve always known by fits and starts and bits and pieces. Socrates says, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” In our own uncertain times it hasn’t helped that Oprah—who seemed so sure about literature, Jo Malone Bath Oils, Philosophy Hope In A Jar Moisturizer, Perfect Endings Cupcakes, Customized Visa Gift Cards, Greenberg Smoked Turkey, Felix Doolittle Note Cards, the Breville Ikon Panini Maker, and Sarabeth's Gift Sampler Jam Box—could be proved wrong. A 60 Minutes expose tonight revealed that Greg Mortenson ginned-up his #1-bestselling Three Cups of Tea.
The result is neurosis, endemic to literary nonfiction. Is our unknowing the only thing we can talk about now? Gerard too takes time in his brief essay to reveal that his editor said, way back then:
“Go over to the high school—some kid just saved his girlfriend from a burning car. Get me a hero story.” I’m quoting him to recreate the sense of urgency that came across, but of course that’s a trick, a convention of the genre. It’s been years and I’m trusting my memory to give me the gist of what he said, the way a writer usually must in any memoir—and “hero story” were key words.
If we feel we can never know the story without enough context—all of it, that is—and doubt at every turn the adequacy of text as a container of consciousness, why the corresponding popularity of smaller and smaller vessels, from six-word memoirs to Tweets? Could this signify a naïve, persistent belief in the ability to say something true, even with very limited context? Even the supposedly-radical Reality Hunger, “manifesto” for a new art, makes a straightforward and very conventional argument: A selection of words in an author-chosen frame can validate its own claim to coherence and significance.
Gerard is talking in his essay about literary nonfiction, but Pound’s idea comes to mind that there can be “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” and, “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” I’d be interested to read also an essay titled, “The Truth in Limited Data, or, How You Can Get It All Right By Leaving Most Things Out.”
To be continued….