or, A Fragmented Conversation with David Shields about Fragments
(This is a collage essay that I completed in today’s Nonfiction lab. Any comments/critique very welcome.)
1. David Shields (quoting Raban) says, ‘The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events they describe.’ He discusses the way a good writer will shape minor, otherwise irrelevant details to propel a story forward, choosing each word carefully to lead the reader in the right direction/s. Which makes me wonder about the seemingly irrelevant passages and reflections in recent nonfiction I have read. In one particular essay, the writer jumped back and forth between her visits to her mother who has dementia, and her volunteer work with fragments of pottery in an archaeological museum. There are so many implicit connections my mind made between these two situations, without even noticing the writer had pushed me to make them.
2. 90% of the surface of the world is water.
We waited for the telephone poles to fall but they didn’t. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘This is what dying feels like.’ A boat to somewhere. Shouts that are carried away on the wind. A husband and child just out of reach. Another child at school, unawares.
The earthquake did stop, after all, as all earthquakes do. I ran in to call Nick’s teacher.
3. I’m thinking that my own work is investigating how we can make a story from fragments of reality – in this case, a Facebook newsfeed from across the world, published hourly by someone who I haven’t seen since I was twelve years old. What lies in the gap between these fragments? What do I have to (want to) add to bring these together into something coherent? About which, David Shields might say that is art, that our minds form logical connections between fragments and the story may write itself. But in the act of writing, the story may become a different story to the one I think I’m writing.
4. My voice is too quiet on the airwaves as I try to keep the conversation light. Whenever I speak I have to repeat myself, breathing softly so as the speaker doesn’t pick it up. I am not a child. I am not a child. The Ruby who Alison has known is the twelve-year-old daughter of an esteemed colleague. A bossy child who cries at the first hint of criticism. No, maybe that’s not it. Twelve years old, insistent on wearing the same magenta turtleneck every time Alison and her husband visit their house for dinner. Twelve years old, winning Scrabble with annoying two-letter-words. Stop. I am the child again, remembering myself and not my surroundings. Who was Alison when I was twelve years old? Who is she now? A mother? A university educator? An expat come home?
5. I’m thinking that my own work is trying to interrogate the concept of “un-knowing”. The act of not interviewing a subject, and the outcomes of that silence of what I don’t know. My mind creates a picture in the act of not-knowing. How would this imagination that has been the last ten years of my relationship with my subject affect telling her story now? David Shield might suggest that this is a new territory to play with, and that being openly self-reflective is no more subjective than the writing of the story based on interviews. At least I am being open about not telling the truth while not telling it.
6. David Shields (quoting Dyer) says, ‘My books [are] works of art rather than accumulations of information.’ He is comparing the novel to the nonfiction work, declaring the process of arranging and structuring words and story to be the same for both forms. Which makes me wonder how memoirists, novelists and essayists decide which one of these they shall be. Should we be reading all writing as art and not educational in an informative way? What is information, anyway?
7. Beyond the fence our neighbour — who had some sort of mental disability that was never talked about — watched us from his balcony as his house bashed back and forth, the metal shutters of his house slamming in no kind of rhythm. I looked back at Hans holding Emi, and we were on a boat on a high sea to somewhere, where there was a violence in gravity and the water had become the earth.
8. David Shields (quoting Gallagher) says, ‘The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life – that one damn thing after another – is lost.’ He is talking about the unavoidable process reality undertakes when being recorded – that it becomes just an aspect of the writer’s view of that reality. Which makes me wonder how nonfiction writers document these aspects during their research – do they take their own perspective as their own subjective truth, or do they interrogate themselves? Do they ask, why is this what I remember? What if I’m wrong?
9. I’m thinking that my own work is exploring the gap between our experiences and those of others. Investigating the reasons why we want to read (and write) stories about other people, regardless of the limitations of truth. Is it empathy? Self-interest? A fear of silence? In response, David Shields might say this is human nature, to want stories, to reach out for reality even though it will remain untouchable. We are trying to grasp the fragments of what have been our memories and existence.