Monthly Archives: May 2001

With Mouth to Ear: Assaying the Essay

The Falkirk Wheel by Kanneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

The Falkirk Wheel by Kenneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

Why define something positive in terms of what it is not? “Non” fiction: I have no idea how this term came to be applied to writing what is, in intent, a “true” story. David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, titled his film of fictional weavings True Stories.

Although Byrne’s film is highly improbable as a series of “real” events, the voice of his film is quite believable and true. True Stories presents a critique of contemporary consumer culture as sharp and insightful as, say, an essay by the 20th-century German philosopher, Theodore Adorno. In fact, Adorno has a great line about just such things as truth and reality: “In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true.”

What I think Adorno’s gnome means for “nonfiction”—and I think especially of “creative nonfiction,” but as well of writing in general—goes something like this. The subjective is always going to be subjunctive—wishes, wants, desires, meditations—and therefore unverifiable. There’s always a point of quantum uncertainty when it comes to locating the veracity of any piece of writing. Sometimes that uncertainty reaches critical mass, and is obviously a work of fiction. At other times the quantum uncertainty shrinks smaller and smaller, collapsing into a black hole that sucks in any and all insinuations of imagination. As an example, perhaps Donald Barthleme’s Snow White is clearly at critical mass, while the white pages are pretty much a black hole. Unless, of course, you’re a typeface designer and are engaged in the art of creating tiny letters that can be read quickly and easily. The Dutch type design community, for instance, is famous for its innovations, both technical and stylistic, in creating utilitarian typefaces. It’s like The Rockman said to Oblio and Arrow in the animated film The Point: “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Continue reading