Monday, June 8, 2009

On the Ethics of Creative Non-Fiction and Aaron Shurin's Memoir "King of Shadows"

Ellen Bryant Voigt has upset me more than any other poet. After my encounter with her, I promised myself I would avoid the poet in every way for the rest of my life.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, I signed up for a conference with her to discuss my work. I was excited. I’m a sycophant and find it an exciting challenge to be liked by someone popular. At the same time, I become frightened that I will be judged in an unfavorable way, slink away from the encounter without any self-respect. I’m a nervous person.

During my conference with Voigt, I deflected any talk about my work, and instead asked questions about hers, particularly the intriguing volume Kyrie which deals with the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. In this book, she writes poems in the personaes of those impacted by the plague. The characters are based on actual real-life people is history.

As it was creative non-fiction, it raised questions for me: How does a writer offer a compelling and organized narrative without warping the characters in such a way you show disrespect for the dead. This sort of work is elegiac, after all, and the dead do possess a right to be remembered in a respectful way. At least, I think so.

So I asked her that.

“I am their God,” she said, “I brought them back to life. Once I write their lives, they become mine.”


One of my brilliant graduate students asked brought up this same very question, and then explored the role of ethics in memoir. In her inquiry, she triumphed in explaining two ways in which a writer can represent The Real, the actuality of historical and/or personal events. She differentiated between translation and distortion. I’ve stolen this idea from her. This dichotomy now supplies my classes with a fun way of looking at CNF.

Let’s draw an analogy to explain the differences.

Think of the way it works in terms of translation of a poem from one language into another. No one could, to a certain extent, acknowledge the importance of translation. You allow a whole new audience accessibility to a foreign work.

In the process of translation, undoubtedly, some words could not be translated to new ones. There would be no equivalent. But you’d find approximations.

And those approximations would be as faithful to the original as possible.

The original text still remains the one worshipped, given appropriate respect.

But if you decided that you wanted to warp the meanings in order to more closely fit your political/aesthetic/ethical agenda, problems arise. You fail to llow your audience to make their interpretations. You appoint yourself as God; the original words no longer marked with the need for respect, fidelity. Your behavior is unkind. That's distortion.

This is all a lead-in to talk about poet Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows. It is one of the kindest pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.

My discussion of Shurin's King of Shadows will continue Wednesday.


  1. Creative non-fiction is a genre I'm deeply engaged with. I find it also filters into prose-poems, for me. The style of writing, for some well-known creative non-fiction writers, is evocative and beautiful, even poetic, no matter what the subject matter.

    I find this to be particularly true of those creative non-fiction writers who work mostly in natural history. I'm thinking of John McPhee, barry Lopez, Loren Eiseley (also an underrated poet), Peter Matthiessen, and a few others.

    I'm not sure one can equate creative non-fiction in the history and memoir genres as having the same issues as in the natural history genre(s). I'd have to think about it. But when you're dealing with people, there are obvious ethical issues that occur, as you point out—but are those the same ethical issues as one has in dealing with environmentalism or with geology, or with ecology? I'm not so sure they can be compared.

    To be honest, I'm not really interested in memoir, which I do not think is necessarily a genre of creative non-fiction. Of course, I might be accused of contradicting myself on the grounds that lately I've been writing a lot of personal history, to reassess one's own life, the way one does in the wake of life-changing events. But my point about memoir is that it is often as egoistically self-involved as, say, confessional poetry. There are certainly issues if the writer imposes will and ego on subject matter. But in a way, I don't care any more than I do in, say, confessional poetry, because there are larger perspectives that are trans-human, and bigger than egoistic self-regard and its dramas.

    I think I understand what you mean about kindness, though. It speaks to me of the compassionate perspectives I find in lots of spiritual writing—which one might consider creative non-fiction, in a way; how far do we stretch that definition?—but also in some of the naturalist writers mentioned above; especially perhaps in Eiseley and Matthiessen.

  2. Steve, you describe a distortion as a "warping" of meanings that results from a desire to fit the subject to a "political, aesthetic or ethical agenda." A question: doesn't every written work have its own aesthetic imperative that is separate from the original lived experience? How does a writer decide whether her choices (condensing time, creating composite characters, inventing dialogue, altering setting) arrive at distortion? Is it simply a matter of degrees?

  3. The effect of the "author filter" on CNF is illuminated for me when I consider the bible as a piece of CNF. Certainly those authors had mighty adjendas. Was it wrong for them to infuse the stories they told with them? I really don't know... Certainly when I read the bible, as when I read any book I consider the author. I think it's the resonsibility of the reader to not take anyone at their word. The truth is even when they write "history" books they leave out what suits them without a shrug of guilt.

  4. Hi Lindsey,

    What wonderful broad questions! I hope to answer some of them through my analysis of the wonderful King of Shadows.

    Yes: every text has its own aesthetic imperatives. Just as it has its own spiritual/political/moral imperatives.

    Let me see if I understand what you meanbvy degrees.

    I believe that an author has an INTENTION when she writes CNF. And that intention uses the Real as a vehicle to express its argument (aesthetic and otherwise).

    The question is how much does the writer need to distort the Real in order to produce her argument. It is a matter of degrees, as you say, and why for each particular change (or degree), does it need to be "more" than a translation.

    I think we can't just say anything goes. Consider George Bush's speeches about weapons of mass destruction as CNF, if you will. Translation of the Real or Distortion? Intention? :)

    Of course, it's a case by case basis, but wanted to provide something extreme to see if I'm offering anything of use to the wonderful questions you brought up.

  5. Steve,

    You don't have to convince me of the existence and caustic nature of narrative distortion. And I don't think anything goes. I think that there is a clear moral imperative at the heart of any piece of creative nonfiction. If I use my persona as a puppet in service of an agenda, the work becomes aesthetically corrosive (even if readers might agree with the underlying moral precept.) However, if we say there is no moral imperative, no moral truth around which the urgency of the narrative swirls, then the narrative act is utterly bereft.

    In my experience, every work that is worth writing or reading has its own organic aesthetic that guides the author's sensory artistic experience. The words on the page are a necessarily imperfect reflection of this experience. They are successful to the degree that they approximate the living narrative beat behind them. This is the matter of degrees that I mean.

    The question: what separates an organic beat from a cosmetic one? The lofty, broad and woefully inadequate answer: cosmetic narrative beats are driven by fear or vanity, greed or apathy, but mostly by fear. Organic beats are generated by writers who, when they are writing, love the world so fearlessly that they find the strength to look at it with clear eyes. In short, writers inhabit and transcribe stories because they believe the ugliness of the world, captured in the act of telling, might somehow be redeemed.

  6. Lindsey,

    Thank you for making it clear that I don't need to convince you of certain things. I'll remember that.

    I'm confused by your rubric and the definitions tho it intrigues me: does organic=ethical, moral, spiritual as opposed to cosmetic=aesthetic?

  7. No. I believe a piece of writing is aesthetically beautiful to the extent that it illuminates the moral ambiguities contained in actions, gestures, things, the act of telling itself. The writer must seek out the beautiful inside the ugly, the ugly inside the beautiful. The more a writer can engage such contradictions, the more aesthetically successful (and "organic") the work. Self-aware artifice that illuminates this tension becomes beautiful. A writer who uses things in service of an agenda is flinching. The moral imperative is inherent in the thing and a writer needs to discover it by fearlessly staring it down.

  8. Hi,

    This feels a bit of an over-the-top, and I wonder if you're thinking this through.

    Here's my question (yes or no). Can a piece of writing being aesthetically beautiful (sentence variation, structure, dynamic verbs nouns, awareness of paragraphs) be bankrupt or dangerous in terms of content?

    Here's an analogy: Can a man be totally hot and dumb or even dangerous?

  9. I know it's over-the-top and probably pollyanna, but ultimately I think form (sentence variation, structure, dynamic verbs etc.) cannot be divorced from content. Give me some concrete examples; you can probably prove me wrong.

    Yes, a man can be totally hot but dumb and/or morally despicable and/or dangerous. BUT: if he is those things he loses his allure, or the allure is deadened and complicated in some way. Works of art, like people, are morally and aesthetically mixed, but the aesthetic and moral are linked. Pretty sentences, initially seductive, lose their force if the writer is not using them to take real, morally illuminating risks.

    I think everything through. I am not always right, but I think it through.

  10. O hon,

    You have a lot to learn about men. When we go out this week, I'll teach you the Birds and the Bees.

  11. "Can a piece of writing being aesthetically beautiful (sentence variation, structure, dynamic verbs nouns, awareness of paragraphs) be bankrupt or dangerous in terms of content?"

    Absolutely. Content and meaning are one axis of interpretation; style and the technical elements of craft are another axis entirely. Of course they overlap; but they are not the same thing.

    Of course the opposite is also true: Some really badly-written material might be something whose content one likes very much. One way in which one might establish a positive critical assessment of a piece of writing is to ask if the content matches well with the technical (craft) container it is put within. Good writing technique means, in one sense, matching the style to the content.

    Lindsey's position is a largely (post-)Romantic one. I agree with the sense that writing often emerges organically from within, rather than being an intellectual imposition of will. I disagree that it's all about beauty, or that motivation (be it redemption or reporting) makes or breaks the quality of the writing. The intention and the motivation do not guarantee that the writing itself will measure up technically.

    And if writing does emerge organically from within, rather than being purely intellectual and intentional, than this implies that the writer doesn't always know what they're doing. This seems to contradict the idea of intention or motivation being central to judging a work as good, which also seems to undercut the idea that motivations make or break the writing, as writing.

  12. It's easy to list examples of bad writing with good motivations: think of most political poetry, how—as poetry—it often doesn't measure up; how it tends to be topical, and not enduring. There are exceptions, but there are always exceptions. Think, also, of most greeting card poetry: it tends to be very well-meant, but is often clich├ęd and sentimental in the extreme.

    It's harder to list examples of good writing with bad motivations. Any motivation one ascribes to an author can be problematic. It may or may not have been present; and many authors wisely refrain from the telling. I can state my personal opinion, for example, that a certain writer is of ill intent; and I might even be able to back my thesis up with textual analysis that incorporates psychological insight based on study and experience. But the writer, if she responds at all to my criticism, can flatly deny it. And then who do you believe?

    It's fairly easy to spot bad writing with ill intent behind it, though. Any of those fundamentalist pamphlets that float about judging everyone as hell-bound except those who believe exactly the same as the writer, for example. This gets at the other aspect of psychology, too: self-delusion, when one thinks one is doing good but creates a bad outcome. I tend to go with the "actions speak louder than words" set in most settings.

    Note that these are all judgmental words: good, bad. That creates a problem for critical assessment already, in that one must both make critical assessments and also separate one's personal taste as to what one likes from what one can recognize as well-written.