Notes on Eternity

Monday, January 31, 2011

This is the third in a series of four nonfiction craft essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from a panel Subtext, Sidetext, Sound Tracks and More: Layering in Creative Nonfiction which was originally presented at the NonfictionNow conference on November 6th, 2010.


1. A few general thoughts

Subtext, I think, has something to do with immortality. If people are digging into the meaning of your writing, then they are engaged with it, and they will keep it alive. And that’s what we want.

We don’t want to die.

We have conversations rife with subtext. We say the words without thinking, casually, but there is something underneath them. How does this happen? How does the under layer form? If a phrase is repeated enough, it begins to have meaning. The meaning is in the repetition, in the intimacy created with the repetition. When we're offering carrots and celery to guests my husband and I say, “Do you want some crew-dytes?” and we both remember that the pronunciation is from that Woody Allen film about the parvenus who hire someone to train them in sophistication. The movie is really about a robbery and some cookies and other things I don’t remember. But we say “crew-dytes” and we awaken the memory of seeing the movie together, as well as the memory of every other time we’ve said “crew-dytes" instead of crudités and so all of the ghosts of our deliberate pronunciations of “crudités” merge, stacking on top of one another. We don’t call this depth, but we could.

Crew-dytes becomes a word in our secret code.

The fact that it’s secret makes it intimate.

2. My manifesto

It is in praise of dense creative nonfiction. Not stupid, dense, but thick, dense, as in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s “thick description.” Meaning that his form of ethnography was to record what the subject did—blink an eye—and also the meaning of it—was it a wink or a twitch? He advocated recording phenomena in context. Which sounds to me like common sense, but much of what academics discover seems like common sense. Blame it on my background in journalism.

My manifesto is: Let’s have layers of meaning. And images. And rhythms and turns of phrase. Language that’s rich and dense, clustered. Even in newspaper journalism—what’s left of it—you can find subtext, and the reason it matters is that the subtext carries meaning, and one thing we are doing here is dissecting the creative nonfiction piece, laying it out like a patient etherized upon a table, to see what makes it tick. And we hope we don’t kill it in the process. [pagebreak]

I started as creative nonfiction editor of Another Chicago Magazine in 1997. One thing that I find over and over and over is that people send in work that’s worth only one reading. What they’ve sent is creative nonfiction, all right, which I define as an umbrella term to include essay, memoir, confession, list, rant, literary journalism, travel and nature writing, fragmented pieces and more, but it’s bad creative nonfiction. It could be uncreative nonfiction, which is written by formula and offers stereotypes and clichés and no meaning. What’s slightly better than this is thin creative nonfiction, which can be sprightly and well-written, can have voice and rhythm, but has little meaning, and little underneath it. It is not worth a second read.

I’m going to go over a few examples of “thick” or “layered” or dense creative nonfiction, and examine what is the verbal agar-agar—thickening agent.

First is an essay that I love, love love. I know it’s an essay because it appeared in Best American Essays. It’s popular, because Google tells me so. If you put “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” in quotes, you get 1,600 results, including some so-called free essays, so you can assume that it’s an assigned work. You can get it online via an English 100–level class at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It originally appeared in Iowa Woman magazine, where it was a co-winner of a nonfiction contest. It was written by Judy Ruiz as an assignment in her MFA program at the University of Arkansas. Her professor was mad at her for sending it to a small magazine instead of The Atlantic. I know this because I interviewed Ruiz on the phone when I was first using this essay. And because we now know that the author is alive, that the writer’s intentionality matters, I would suggest or manifest this: Call the writer. If the writer is really dead, or if the writer is very famous, obviously you can’t. But in that case, someone else has interviewed the author and you can look it up. And don’t do an e-mail interview. You lose spontaneity and it’s harder on the writer.

The assignment was to write a long paper about something that was on the students’ own hearts and minds, that meant something to them. So she wrote about something she’d been thinking about a lot, wanted to come to terms with. At first it was a straightforward piece called “The Tao of Betrayal.” She kept thinking about oranges, so she put them in. And she did a lot of cutting and pasting. She used parts of her dream journal.

The dreamy mystery in the piece draws me. The other-world-ness draws me. The beauty and rhythm draw me. So do the angst-driven punch lines and sardonicness. I’m continually surprised every time I read this. I find what I didn’t see before. I think that’s part of what makes a classic. It can be read over and over, by the same person, by different people, different generals.

This is a collage piece, which moves through time and space though essentially it’s a narrative with flashbacks and exposition. The parts connect the way that images in dreams connect and the way that dreams connect with reality. Subtly. It begins with dreams: “I am sleeping, hard, when the telephone rings. It’s my brother and he’s calling to say that he is now my sister.” [pagebreak]

Boom. That sounds like unreality. We’re jarred, too, out of our comfortable reading experience.

I feel something fry a little, deep behind my eyes. Knowing how sometimes dreams get mixed up with not-dreams, I decide to do a reality test at once. “Let me get a cigarette,” I say, knowing that if I reach for a Marlboro and it turns into a trombone or a snake or anything else on the way to my lips that I’m still out in the large world of dreams.The cigarette stays a cigarette. I light it. I ask my brother to run that stuff by me again.

Which is what we’re feeling, too.

Then all of a sudden she makes a huge leap: She’s imagining her conception on a train at midnight. The message here, I think, is that life is transcendent but also ordinary—of course reality is confusing, because it is so magical.

Then she goes back to the phone call, still, we presume, with the phallic cigarette in her mouth.

News can make a person stupid. It can make you think you can do something. So I ask the Blade question, thinking that if he hasn’t had the operation yet I can fly to him, rent a cabin out on Puget Sound. That we can talk. That I can get him to touch base with reality.

“Begin with an orange,” I would tell him. . . . I would hold the orange out to him. I would say, “This is the one that would save your life.”

Who would talk about oranges when your brother tells you he’s undergoing a sex change, especially if he told you that two decades ago, when sex-change operations were much more uncommon than today? But the oranges fit in here. They stand for reality in this piece. We need a touchstone. The orange is the color of its name. It is “mildly intrusive by nature,” as Ruiz writes. It is so very much what it is. And it comes back in a rhythm throughout the piece and provides an image and a concreteness that much of the piece lacks. And it’s not entirely explained. Writers have to have the courage and wisdom to know what to explain and what not to, what to present, like an image, and let it gather meaning throughout the piece.

Ruiz also repeats phrases: “My brother called me and now he’s my sister,” “that mildly intrusive nature.” She veers from description to exposition to narration, in a general but not a static pattern. Much of it is set down where it is according to instinct. “I don’t write the way I do because I want to befuddle anyone,” she told me. “I don’t know why I write the way I do. I think some of my wires are crossed.” But also: “There’s not a celebration in me when I finish a straight piece.” [pagebreak]

3. Context as subtext—politics as subtext

I’m looking at another piece that’s been reprinted in college texts, and that I’ve read and taught for many years. Its appeal is that it’s a great model for students of a piece that’s made of tight little scenes. It’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self” by Alice Walker. I know it was included in a first-year writing text that I used once, many years ago, but I don’t know which one. It came with Questions, divided among Ideas, Organization, Sentences, Words, and Suggestions for writing. Yes, not all of these are questions.

The student is asked about the essay’s organization, Walker’s descriptions of her reactions, craft elements such as dialogue and images, structure and repetition. I find it interesting that there is nothing, nothing at all, about race and poverty, two subjects that assert themselves in the second paragraph:

My father is the driver for the rich old white lady up the road. Her name is Miss Mey. She owns all the land for miles around, as well as the house in which we live. All I remember about her is that she once offered to pay my mother thirty-five cents for cleaning her house, racking up piles of her magnolia leaves, and washing her family’s clothes, and that my mother—she of no money, eight children, and a chronic earache—refused. But I do not think of this in 1947.

Poverty, race, poor people’s illnesses, and home remedies recur in the piece, without comment. A few mentions are enough to get the information across. This is an example: In a later scene her mother has a painful abscess in her ear. “She is being treated with warm oils and hot bricks held against her cheek. Finally a doctor comes.”

Walker also writes about males and guns several times in the piece, just a quick jot and on to something else. The point of the piece is that she was once her father’s favorite, cute and sassy and smart. Then one day her brother accidently shoots a BB into her eye. The eye turns blind. After that she becomes withdrawn. She feels ugly. A film grows over her eye. When she gets the film removed, the burden lifts. Mostly.

When she’s older, she asks her brother Jimmy what he remembers. He answers: “All I remember is standing by the side of the highway with Daddy, trying to flag down a car. A white man stopped, but when Daddy said he needed somebody to take his little girl to the doctor, he drove off.” My take on this is that the white man thought they were day laborers who happened to have a little girl with them. But that’s all Walker says about it.

I wonder if the lack of rage about circumstances makes the piece palatable to white audiences. Walker’s not a raging black woman. She’s a woman concerned with her place in the family, her sense of self, her happiness. She notes how males with guns have harmed females—but again, only lightly. I would be interested to see what other textbooks offer in the way of questions, whether they touch upon race and class. Students, at least those who use that textbook, are not asked to find subtext or context.

That doesn’t seem right. But it’s safe. [pagebreak]

4. Subtext as the roots of the overt

That leads to my last example. It’s not safe. It doesn’t dance around race and class. It delves deeply. It begins: “A nightmare of being chased has plagued my sleep since I was a boy. The monster pursuing me assumes many shapes, but its face is too terrifying for the dream to reveal.” The author is explicit from the beginning, even before the beginning, with the title “Looking at Emmett Till,” by John Edgar Wideman. Throughout the piece, we have faces. The one in the nightmare years before Emmett Till was murdered. There’s Emmett Till, of course—his mutilated face photographed in Jet magazine, his face again in close-up on Wideman’s VCR as he’s writing this essay, West African carved mask–like “nail fetishes” that “began appearing when slaving ships criss-crossed the Atlantic” (we’re not told where exactly they appeared, what their effect was, and who made them), pictures of white girls in Wideman’s wallet.

This is a piece that does not pull its punches. It does not shy away from exposition. There’s no straight narrative, no scenes, no sustained dialogue. This is a classic essay, though instead of contemplating coolly, it goes as deep as it can into images that stand in for feelings that can’t be described. On the other hand, it’s direct in its subject. It tells readers exactly what it’s about: it speaks the abstract words that we warn students against using, in favor of concreteness. Wideman talks about racism and genocide, an apartheid mentality in America. The image that keeps coming back is the face. We’re told of Emmett’s unmourned, unburied, mangled face; Wideman imagines a Warhol-like image of Till’s face, replicated ninety-six times on a large canvas, “each version of the face exactly like the other but different names printed below each one. Martin Luther Till. Malcoln Till. Medgar Till. Nat Till.” And so on. Another nightmare, this time with a photo of Emmett Till whole, smiling, next to the real Till in a casket with his “awful face, patched together with string and wire”—like the “nail fetishes” at the beginning of the essay. Emmett Till’s face becomes something from another world, a reminder of the chaos and evil of the racism and sorrow still in this country. It’s deep, it’s the stuff of dreams, it’s buried in our subconscious. We can find names for it, but we can’t get hold of it. It comes to haunt us. It is the wound in our country. It stays with us after we have closed the book. It is evil, of course, but the more I think about it, it seems like fear, the closest thing we can get to creating an image of what we fear, and at the same time creating an image that we hope will scare off the evil.

And so if the image stays with you and begins to haunt your dreams, then you will have a connection with Wideman, and Till, and Africans taken into slavery, and the very nonbanality of evil. Which is, I believe, eternal.


Ruiz, Judy. “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy.” In Best American Essays 1989, edited by Geoffrey           Wolff.  Series edited by Robert Atwan.” New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989.

Walker, Alice. “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983.

Wideman, John Edgar. “Looking at Emmett Till.” In In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind, 24–48. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.