The Colgate Scene
November 2001

The literature of fact

This past April, Assistant Professor of English Leila Philip delivered a craft talk on the writing of nonfiction prose for the Humanities Colloquium Series. Her lecture, titled "Literally Nonfiction: A Writer's Craft Talk on the Role of Invention in Nonfiction Prose" drew a large crowd and not surprisingly, sparked debate. An award-winning author, Philip studied as an undergraduate at Princeton with John McPhee, worked for several years as a journalist, then went on to complete an MFA in fiction at Columbia. Her lecture outlined the historical roots of American nonfiction, then dove into a discussion of ethics and aesthetics in the writing of memoir and nonfiction prose. What follows is a brief excerpt from that talk as well as an excerpt from her forthcoming book published by Viking, A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family.

The talk

And here I come back to my title. The role of invention in nonfiction prose. I have spent a good deal of time talking about the memoir, because it flashes bright on our screen as the form of nonfiction writing we most think of these days. But I want to turn now to another vibrant area of nonfiction, the essay in all its myriad forms, and longer book-length nonfiction. These include words of travel writing, profiles, biography, cultural commentary, scientific writing, writing on nature and on and on. Writers working with the essay today draw from fiction, from poetry, from the classical and European traditions of the essay and from journalism. It is a huge, increasingly experimental arena of literary exploration. As Donald Hall comments in the introduction to his recent anthology, The Contemporary Essay -- one of the dozens of books about nonfiction being collected and published today -- "We live in the age of the essay. In part our age needs the essay because it needs exposition."

The best way I can think of to begin to address this proliferation of nonfiction essays and nonfiction forms is to spend a moment on nomenclature. After all, nonfiction is the only genre which defines itself by what it isn't. We don't call poetry non-prose writing, or fiction non-real writing. Non fiction. The very name seems a signboard saying, not made up. No lies. Only the truth here. But as we have already seen, in the realm of memoir, a major category of nonfiction, especially today, truth is understood to be interpretive. The workshop that I teach here is called nonfiction prose, but it's a lousy name, really. But it is better than the name creative nonfiction, which sounds like a Playskool toy -- that horrible primary-colored colored plastic.

The term I like the best, literature of the fact, both restores some dignity to the genre and alludes to its history. For nonfiction is a profoundly American genre, one that interestingly has always been tied to landscape. For it was Henry David Thoreau, our great poet-naturalist, who demonstrated again and again in his essays how natural facts could be rendered as symbol, as extended metaphor. For Thoreau, the intense scrutiny of natural facts led to a spiritual reality. He was a master of concrete description and a master symbolist. His narrative essays like Walking would set the stage for American essayists to come. In part, he had absorbed his passion for nature and the American landscape from his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's essays had repeatedly called for Americans to view the land around them as their cultural heritage, the repository of the greatness and even spiritual calling of the bold new republic. His works are infused with the tremendous optimism of American transcendentalism. In Self Reliance, Emerson proclaims in the first paragraph:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men -- That is genius

Yet, while Emerson pursued a clear national ideology, he was no propagandist. He was a believer who had been touched by a vision -- and he was constantly writing about writing. He believed in what he called "the monstrous corpse of memory" and set forth the great paradox of nonfiction writing. The more personal you are, the more universal you can become. The writer of the personal essay, or the first person nonfiction narrative, must believe this. Then she must work to make the reader care -- not through the parading of intimacies, but through the rendering of language.

In my workshop students try their hand at telling other people's stories -- writing profiles, nonfiction narratives based upon photographs and other endeavors based upon research and reportage. But they also write travel stories and essays about place, all kinds of nonfiction narratives based upon their own experience. Often my best students encounter a crisis of faith when trying to render their own experiences on the page. I can't seem to make it interesting, they will say. Who cares about my experience? Bless them for such questions. For their humility, self-doubt and skepticism. They will end up writing the best work in the class.

If you truly believe your experience to be not unique to yourself but emblematic of, symbolic of, or standing for the experience of others, then actually you will be writing toward empathy, not narcissism, pulling in life, rather than spiraling down to observe your own navel. You will avoid hooking the reader with intimacies instead of through language -- the nonfiction writer's greatest danger. And presto, art can begin. This is a hard concept to grasp and put into practice. Unless you look outward as you look in; see the world as a good reporter does -- an infinite prism of stories just waiting to be told. The facts, those blessed facts, will save you. So will research. The best essays modulate personal and impersonal information. I tell my students to think of the writer as curator of events. Your job, I tell them, is to bring life onto the page -- observations, details, information, descriptions . . . language.

The excerpt
In the beginning

Before me stood Talavera, but all around was darkness. Light was spewing out from so many of the tall windows that the house could have been a ship sailing the night sea. But instead of feeling cheered by what I saw, I felt frozen. Talavera, that grand vessel of the past, how much of it was illusion, a house of cards, precarious, hostage to the slightest breeze?

Even now I could shut my eyes and see each room as it had been. On the uppermost floor in the west room sat the mahogany cradle that had rocked generations. My sister and I had found it a perfect place to nurse the baby rabbits that we sometimes found abandoned in the fields after the mower had gone by. Determined to save them from the dogs and the cats, we wrapped them in old sweaters and nursed them with tiny droppers of milk, feeding them every two hours. The rabbit kits never lived more than a few days, but we would try, stroking their impossibly small ears and frail, quivering bodies with a finger until they fell still, asleep in our palms.

In that same room was the strange armadillo basket, a Victorian horror made from an armadillo shell, the nose wired to the long tail to form a handle. Boredom was never possible on rainy days at Talavera. It was an adventure merely to open the huge old doors and wander through these rooms. Each was filled with strange old things to finger and collect or just to stare at from a wary distance. Downstairs the curio cabinets were stocked with prehistoric and Mohican arrowheads collected each season in the upturned plow furrows. I loved to look at them and at the shelves of relics from an ancestor's travels. Medals, bits of stone, a tiny shoe with a message written on the sole, a stone lantern, a piece of Roman tile, the broken edge of an old relief, a square of embroidered fabric, a pile of coins, a strange torpedo-shaped Civil War bullet: so many things that each time you looked you could find something new.

My family saved everything, a habit that would make my search possible when it came to digging up the past. I loved the funny silver and porcelain thimbles, the faded, falling-apart packets of needles and thread and blanket binding, the old quill pens and nibs and the glass inkwells that I painstakingly strove to use when I was twelve, blotching ink all over the white pages of my leather-bound journal. The books were old; the wastebaskets were old; the drapes were old; even the bottles of alcohol and Pepto-Bismol in the medicine closet were from a time long before I was born. Once I went looking for a Band-Aid and pried open the rusting metal box only to find that the Band-Aids inside had withered. I dumped out a dozen yellow strips that crackled and broke to the touch like dried cicada shells.

Talavera was not just a house and not just the past. It was not just my father's dream, and it was not just my aged rival. Somehow Talavera had absorbed my own childhood, becoming me. Once I walked out of the house, across the lawns and onto the farm's land, time would conflate, and I was not just the age I was then but all the ages I had ever been. I was five years old and climbing on, then falling off our Shetland pony. I was nine years old and riding my first new bicycle, down the big hill faster and faster until my wheel caught in a rut and I came to a stop, smack against the boxes of a beehive. I was 12 years old and proudly backing up a tractor and trailer. Then 16 and racing my horse, faster and faster without a saddle or a bridle, across the meadow.

I walked slowly back up to the house and crossed the north porch. All around me the tall Corinthian columns spired up, echoing the tripartite structure of the house with its north and south wings and its central pavilion, designed to appear as if a temple lost within a grove. I reached out to open the door. Beneath my fingers the copper door handle felt solid, reassuringly smooth and cool. But as soon as I began to turn the knob, I felt myself grow weak. The knob turned and turned, but the door would not open. Broken, the inside mechanism separated from the catch. A simple matter, but at that moment my insides split into a panic. I couldn't get in, I couldn't get away.

I thought back to the psalm that my mother and I had chosen for my father's funeral: "You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass." Then, as if on cue, the knob on the front door caught and turned. I pushed the door forward and walked in, listening to my footsteps echo in the now-darkening house.

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