Creating Subtext in Personal Narrative

Monday, January 17, 2011

This is the first 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.

What follows is the text of a rejection slip I got, and maybe deserved, from a high cotton literary journal that specializes in nonfiction. The rejection said that my essay submission caused a great deal of dissent among the editorial board, and then went on to suggest that I write “more on the theme of suddenly finding yourself at middle age and less perhaps about memories that are more telling to the writer than the reader.”

I liked the rejection so much—and how rare is that?—that I used it as the epigraph for a poem. It’s called “I Kept the Part about Turning Fifty,” and it lists the things that I supposedly decided to leave out of the revision of the essay the editors didn’t like.

I lost the part about walking to school,
the new subdivision after the war, unfinished,
cutting through Kocha’s field with all the dandelions
(or a calf-high puddle of slush we waded in March),

I decided to cut the scene
where Miss Campbell, first grade, huffs
and pulls a … girl by her stained smock
to the sink like the one in back of every room.
She bends the girl under the faucet,
lathers a hand soap to froth
and washes the dirty girl’s hair,

And so on. You get the idea.

It later occurred to me that the rejection slip isolated a central problem the writer faces in personal narrative: How to know whether what has happened to the writer might or might not have meaning for somebody else. How not to just write things “that are more telling to the writer than the reader.” This speaks to what in my workshops we call the “so what” question. The events of this “nonfiction poem” really did happen to me (I really did walk through Kocha’s field on the way to school; my first-grade teacher really did wash an impoverished girl’s hair in class, in front of all of us), but how do I know it’s going to mean anything to you? How do I know these events can carry subtext, meaning beyond the literal level? So what?


Not long ago I was listening to an award-winning elder poet do a reading of short, fragmented poems, the kind of thing that I am predisposed to like. It wasn’t working for me on this particular day, but what I did find interesting was the way her introductions to her short poems amplified or deepened lines that would occur in the reading of the poem, thus creating a kind of rhyme for the listener: We heard her cite the line in the intro, telling us what it meant to her or giving us the story behind its composition. Then when we heard the line again in the poem, our brain could say “Ahh,” in recognition. This created an illusion of subtext, I think. Some of these lines, standing on the page without the poet’s introduction, maybe held a private symbolism only, the kind of thing that editorial board didn’t like in my essay.


How common this is at poetry readings, where without the setup, the subtext of a particular image or situation is not clear on one hearing, or is simply particular to the poet.

I think we all face this as writers in any genre. We’re not there to explain our work to the reader. The work has to stand alone.

Complicating this is the way meaning (or subtext) can change in a piece of writing once it’s finished and published. The story ends, the writing ends, but life—and the world—goes on.

The clearest example of this phenomenon occurs at the occasional wedding reception I play with my jazz quartet. The piano player always asks the bride (it’s usually the bride, not the groom) whether there are any special songs she’d like us to play (which is to say, songs that have a private subtext for the happy couple). At the hip receptions, the bride always says, “No, play what you like.” At the hippest receptions, the bride tells us to play something by Bill Evans or Miles Davis, but that doesn’t happen too often. More often the “special song” of the couple is something that carries different connotations for the listener (or the musicians) from those it has for the newlyweds. How are these songs going to sound decades later when the video of the reception is played for the grandkids? For years, the most requested song was “We’ve Only Just Begun.” What’s the subtext of that song now? Anorexia, perhaps? Polyester? Soft-focus photography and weird hairdos? Later the requested song became “Just the Way You Are.” It’s a nice enough song—both of them are—but the subtexts of those songs have changed due to no fault of the composers or performers.

Actually, at the very hippest wedding I ever attended, during the recessional the band played Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” I noted how an ironic application of anything in the common culture, no matter how good the original product, seems pretty durable. But when you play it straight, beware: the subtext can change out from under you.

So it could be that even if we know how to create subtext in creative nonfiction, we have little or no control over what subtext will become. To my mind, this relates to an ethical question that I have about what I do for a living, which is to help people write nonfiction stories mostly drawn from their lives. Most of these stories, no matter how well done, and contrary to the ardent wishes of the writer, will end up not being very widely read. Many may end up in a desk drawer rather than between the covers of a book. Given this, and given the elusiveness of subtext over time, what does it all mean? Why write or encourage others to do so?


Well, one answer is that in an age when people no longer write letters and diaries, maybe the natural audience for our work is indeed the people who may someday find it in that desk drawer—family, descendants, researchers: the very people we tell students they’re not writing for. Or perhaps the audience is the other people who will read the work in class. We tell our students they must write for a broader audience than that, and we hope that’s true. But maybe what we’re producing, individually and collectively, in this vast wave of memoir writing (so often criticized by those outside our creative writing world) is not in the end art, though it may be artful, but a documentation of what life is like for a portion of the educated population of early twenty-first-century America. Maybe we’re producing a record, and maybe in part it’s an emotional record. To the degree this comes to pass, we may not finally be in charge of what the subtext of our writing turns out to be. People may be reading the work someday for reasons different from what we intended.

I’m reminded of that oft-seen silent movie clip of Theodore Roosevelt chopping down a tree. It was made as a campaign film to illustrate the president’s vigor in early middle age. But watching it a hundred years later, we note instead the flickering and jerkiness in the projection of the images. How amusing, we think, as he sets out to chop a day’s stove wood, is Roosevelt’s vested suit and pince-nez spectacles. How quaint.

By the way, in researching this little film, I learned online that as Roosevelt finished his work, the tree fell on the cameraman. No subtext there.


Let me emphasize: I don’t think we can write or teach writing with these things in mind. That would make us crazy. But personally, I don’t mind the idea of someone someday stumbling across one of my by then long-out-of-print small press books or essays, and saying, “So that’s what it was like to be alive then. This Terrill guy gives me a good feel for what people must have been thinking and feeling and worrying about all those years ago. How odd that he expresses himself in this quaint way.”

Still, I’d like for that accidental reader to find some literary value in the work, even if she’s reading it as a curiosity. How to create that value?

I can think of three ways (which isn’t to say there aren’t more than three). One way to create subtext is through the properties of language, and a second is through the structure of the writing, the juxtaposition of scenes, images, anecdotes, sections, ideas. Both of these—the subtext in the language, the subtext implied in structure—suggest that creative nonfiction can work the way poetry does. But my question is, in nonfiction, is this enough? Is good or “poetical” writing alone enough? Is the arrangement of elements into a pattern that is aesthetically pleasing and intellectually challenging—is that enough to create sufficient subtext?

Maybe sometimes it is. But I think usually something else is in play. So the third way of creating subtext, strangely enough, is through choice of subject matter.

Consider one writer whose work may show how the choice of subject can affect subtext. That is the twentieth-century pioneer environmental writer Sigurd Olson, someone whose work you’d never read in an MFA program (which is partly why I chose him). Olson was one of the people who saved the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from private development. Olson was a canoe guide in northern Minnesota, a naturalist, and later the first president of the Wilderness Society. He did outdoor writing as long ago as the 1930s (often in men’s magazines like Argosy) but is best known now for his series of books about the north—many about the Superior-Quetico canoe country in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. These books were published between 1956 and 1982, the year of his death. They’re important enough that they’ve all been brought back into print by the University of Minnesota Press.


Why do Olson’s books remain available? Is it because the subject matter that Olson had the vision to take up has become more important over time—that is, because the subtext of his writing has taken on a dimension not apparent in the sentences and paragraphs when they were first read? Olson meditated on his outdoor experiences, understood an important part of human nature, saw where the society and the world were going in regard to industrialization, overpopulation, and spiritual decay, and he wrote from the heart about the deep questions that surround these dilemmas. He understood the audience of his day, but he looked beyond the popular tropes and commercial givens of that day.

I’m not referring here simply to his taking up of a political subject. Olson’s best work is not polemic but an exploration of the relationship of humankind to wilderness. When he started in the 1930s, very few in the mainstream culture would have admitted any value in the relationship of people to wilderness. Wilderness was still something to be tamed. Olson posited that people needed to have a relationship to the outdoors and to undeveloped lands—this at a time when the population of the United States was less than half of that of the crowded country we now live in, and undeveloped spaces in his upper Midwest were virtually at the edges of nonsprawling communities. But he went further. He didn’t lecture his reader about this subject with the moral certainty of a fundamentalist; he explored the dimensions of the subject. At his best, he took his writing to his highest level of doubt.


In graduate school, I remember being struck by a professor’s pronouncement that Theodore Dreiser, someone who I’m sure isn’t read anymore by English students, was “a bad writer but a great novelist.” Nice phrase. And a similar phrase could be applied to Olson. Sometimes his sentiment, his hackneyed descriptions, make me wince, or skim. “Please, Sig,” I say in reading, “please don’t quote Robert Service.” And why must we have the metaphor of a “golden thread running through the colorful fabric of experience” right next to a “search for the mother lode of dreams”?

Olson was not a great stylist. But, at times in spite of the writing, Olson was a great writer of creative nonfiction because he had vision, because the writing captured what have proved to be essential truths, complex enough that they are still to be fully imagined.

In his autobiography Open Horizons, for instance, Olson writes, “There are those who believe we can have our high technology, continue at the same pace, and still preserve our world. I doubt that this will be possible. The only alternative is to reverse our dominant attitude toward the earth, and in our use of it recognize that man is part of nature, and that his welfare depends as it always has and always will on living in harmony with it.” This sounds to us today like anything an elementary school teacher might say to his class—noncontroversial. But that wasn’t the case in the 1960s, when Olson wrote these words, or in the 1930s and 40s, when he was beginning to formulate the ideas behind them.


It’s true that the passage relies on direct statement of meaning rather than on implied subtext. So here’s a more subtle example, though also more mundane. It’s about trying to locate the portage from one lake to the next along a forested shoreline:

The secret was to find where the water moved, a matter of studying the horizons to determine their lowest points. Black ash, alder, and muskeg often gave them away, and after a time it became second nature knowing the way to go. There was evidence of portages, indistinct and grown over with brush and blocked by windfalls, but the old trails traveled by Indians for centuries and by prospectors and trappers before me, were there.

To my ear, “the secret was to find where the water moved” could be a line cribbed from a Japanese tanka. “After a time it became second nature knowing the way to go” reminds me of Thoreau, but is also a sentiment that I’m tempted to frame and hang over my writing desk. Or on the wall of a Zen monastery. And that the old trails were traveled by Indians and trappers: this is important because one of the ways that Olson finds meaning in wilderness is in the connection that it implies with the past—our American past, but also our human past as hunter-gatherers, not that long ago in evolutionary terms, Olson reminds us.

He speaks to this tie with the past elsewhere in Open Horizons, writing of his early work as a guide in the 1920s.

This exploring gave me an urge that has never been completely satisfied, a need that carried me into the far north hundreds and finally thousands of miles from home. I realize now what a tremendous privilege it was, how fortunate I was, to have lived at a time when there was still new and unmapped country. To know what thousands of early Americans had done gave me perspective on the value of wilderness.

Buried in a subordinate part of a sentence is Olson’s recognition that the time of vast tracts of unmapped lands has passed. He’s no idealist or dreamer. He knows the world has changed. But the work respects the past and speaks to the future. Stated directly is the mystery of experience (and what a subtext there!): “an urge that has never been completely satisfied.” What is that urge? Well, you have to read the whole book to try to understand that, and probably Olson at the end of his long life didn’t fully understand, so vast is the subtext of the statement.


So sometimes he is a pretty good stylist—though that’s not why we read him today. We read him because, as in that passage, he presents us with a conflict that is still with us: this need for wilderness (and in other of his writings, for solitude, for reflection, for unpopulated roadless areas), the existence of which remains controversial. Elsewhere he writes, “Should the time ever come when we allow our engrossment with comfort and technological progress to erase our longings to the point where we no longer dream of an unspoiled world, then I fear for America.”

The italics are mine. Olson here stakes out a claim that remains for us contentious: that our national character, our national existence, depends on wilderness. That’s why the writing lives. Through his vision and his presentation, Olson has indeed given us, to borrow from the language of my rejection slip, “More about finding yourself in the wilderness, and less about memories that are more telling to the writer than the reader.”

Perhaps the key to creating subtext in personal narrative writing, then, lies in knowing that that genre, ironically, is not about you. It’s never about you, because you’re not very important—not compared to the world. As writers, we must choose subjects that will still be important in fifty or a hundred years. We must avoid writing about frivolous things, or someone in the future may be laughing at us.