Nonfiction Notebooks

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On the last day of a month-long research trip that took me all over France and New York City, I filled my flash drive and notebook with the last phrases and images of discrete data these instruments (and my stacks-woozy mind) could hold, and made my way on several Metro trains, from the Butler Library at Columbia to Rockaway Beach. Early that morning, beneath my white cotton dress, I had thought to put on a bikini.

Ah, the beach. The Atlantic’s dark salty crests, the screaming children, my first cold plunge, altered my studious mood like a tonic, cleared the must from my head, and refreshed my subway-sticky skin. Here, I had arrived in a new corner of the world, loud and fresh, jolting me from my library solitude. (A solitude I treasure, and most often prefer,  but one that contrasted so pleasingly with the splash of the waves, the noise and brightness I had entered). 6 PM: hours before the sun would set.

A friend of a friend shared a beach towel and we ate tacos, shading our eyes from the sun. She asked me about my work, my research, and spoke a little on the topic of fiction: “I don’t read it, because I care about real stories. I prefer non-fiction.”

I responded with my old chestnut. You know, something along the lines of,  all art or writing, non-fiction or fiction, or poetry, is a construct, an artifice, writing always tells a particular story or stories in the midst of the concurrence of multiple truths, and…you know.

It was a pleasant conversation, not at all like the one I had a few months back, with a rather aggressive individual who demanded my phone number with a wink, after telling me novels were a “goddamn waste of time,” as if I should be grateful for his inspired rant, the profound revelations of which permitted me just enough time to set right my life.

No, this was a pleasant conversation on Rockaway Beach. This chat got me thinking, not so much about the place of the “real” in the literary arts, but more about my own biases as a reader. As a fiction writer, I will confess that I primarily read fiction. I admire the poetry of my peers, but poetry occupies an embarrassingly small portion of my bookshelves (this woe is currently being remedied by a brilliant poet’s summer reading suggestions).  I read op-eds in the paper and online, but I’ve let a good deal of nonfiction heavy-hitters pass me by. I enjoy the nonfiction I encounter in literary journals, but truth be told, it’s the fiction writers I’m looking for when I scan a journal’s table of contents.

Aside from my awareness of nonfiction as a literary art in its own right, I also know that nonfiction is the fuel that often feeds fiction. My fiction’s fuel on that day was all inside my beach bag: the nonfiction blended with stories I had scribbled in my notebook for the last month, the microfilm newspaper articles lodged on the flash drive in my purse, the photocopied pages of a book of essays on artists and their lovers.  I try my hand at nonfiction at least once a month for this website (though my heart differentiates this writing from my work, wherein I “make stuff up” — arduously, with the mad conviction of its truth).  In the fall I will teach a class all about nonfiction writing — freshman comp. Why was I not actively gathering more nonfiction, to fuel my fictional and non-fictional work, to serve as inspiration for my students? Why not explore this other arena of truth-telling?

It’s delightful what can be discovered when we read outside the boundaries of our usual comforts. And so, three essays I’ve recently read and gladly recommend to anyone in search of a good nonfiction story. Each piece reads a bit like it has been pulled from the pages of the writer’s notebook, scribblings marking conversation between the “real stories” and the writer’s own imagination. Excerpted to pique your curiosity.

Adrienne Rich writes, conversationally, expansively, on the meager selection of poetry to be found in a mall, a place where every other product is readily available to consume, in her piece, “Those Two Shelves, Down There,” from her book of essays, What is Found There. 

I’m on a search for poetry in the mall. This is not sociology, but the pursuit of an intuition about mass marketing, the so-called free market, and how suppression can take many forms — from outright banning and burning of books, to questions of who owns the presses, to patterns of distribution and availability.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Young Berries,” from The Paris Review, Summer 2012, Vol. 201. In this piece, a retrospective of a girlhood year spent in a Soviet “sanatorium and school for proletariat children with tuberculosis,” Petrushevskaya shifts from third person to first and back and forth from there. This maneuver, graceful in its movements, astounded me.

Azure skies, turquoise dusk, pas de quatre, my tears, his icy fingers — all vanished and remained in paradise. Here was another story — here I was a fifth grader with a chronic cold and torn brown stockings.

“The One Cake, The Only Cake,” by Andrew H. Miller, resembles lucid, philosophical marginalia as the writer muses on Virginia Woolf’s notebooks, and the ways that she traced life, loss, absence and kinship, and the surface area between factual truth and possible fictions, the  slippery concept of concurrence, in her journals. The way that Miller’s sensitive writing brushes up right against excerpts of Woolf’s is thrilling. Miller’s piece can be found in Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2012, Vol. 51:2.

Very far off there was a hum of traffic. In the mews one heard the stamp of horses; a clatter of the wheels and buckets. In a bedroom window, one of the Queen’s Gate back windows opposite, I could see Sir Alfred Lyall dressing and undressing. One of the windows was broken; the secants said there lay the wedding feast still untouched; for a bridegroom had failed, or a bride had died. Certainly there was a dusty broken window. [Woolf]

One here, the other there, arced under the same sky at the same moment. A window opens onto a story, perhaps true, perhaps fictional: a failure, a death, the past persisting as something that has not been forthcoming, a wedding feast untouched, a cake uncut, uneaten. [Miller]

Image: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Rockaway Beach.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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