We know a favorite nonfiction writer’s voice when we hear it, some recognizable mix of inflection, emphasis, and that certain undressed ringing. But what else?
The places we’re from contour our words, and youse guys’d know what I mean—if youse guys had ever been to da Sout’ Side of Chicawgo. And ethnicity, suppressed or shouted, and gender in all its slip slide, and sexuality, stirred up or secret, and every generation’s historical and pop cultural bloodlines, and each our cocktails of insiderness and outsiderness, politics or lack of politics, faith or lack of faith, and how we define or undefine family. But what else?
1. Let’s say a nonfiction voice is inflected with naked refusal, perpetually seeking change, that tendency to push back, to the point of bruising, against what’s been given.
When I was in high school, I was obsessed with American Vietnam War protesters. I was too young to have been part of the youth movement from that generation before mine, the ones who lived between my childhood and the middle age of my parents. By the time I was a teenager, hippies were already old enough to be historical, and I read books, stared at photographs of long, unkempt hair and tie-dyed headbands, of squinting and impassioned demonstration faces.
Then I saw the famous image from the Kent State National Guard shootings of protesting students, that college girl falling to her knees, wailing over her dead friend, her outstretched hand, her open mouth. The NO of her body was a particular grief, I see now, but at sixteen I saw only a body’s naked NO against violence and warring governments and also the whole, suffocating fabric of what had come before. I showed these books to my friends, the stories of the activists and flower children, their slogans, catchy, like DROP ACID NOT BOMBS or FIGHTING FOR PEACE IS LIKE BALLING FOR VIRGINITY, the latter of which I didn’t yet fully understand, yet did understand, because I knew a logic flaw when I saw one.
My friends didn’t get why I cared about a war that had ended when we were ten. Hippies were already a joke by then, Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In in bikini and body paint. They didn’t see what I loved, that full frontal refusal of a typical future. One aspect of the nonfiction voice is a writer’s naked relationship to what she resists.
2. Let’s say a nonfiction voice is nakedly yearning.
My sophomore year in college, at the big university in central Illinois, I snuck home from campus one weekend without telling my family—not to my parents’ house but to our home city, Chicago, to stay over at a friend’s sister’s apartment, in a neighborhood near to where I live now but was far from living in then. I came because I missed the city. Even then I called this my Chicagolust—and I did indeed mean lust, as in that strip-and-give-me-back kind of desire, doomed to be unrequited, because places never lust us back—yet having no idea that this was a feeling I’d carry even thirty years after leaving the entire state behind. This lost-place-lust was such a part of me that in the middle of my life—when I finally did move back to Chicago—I would find myself newly displaced, not by geography but by no longer recognizing myself without my defining identity as a woman who longed unceasingly for a place she did not live. When had longing supplanted the place itself, the place that was, like any place, long gone now, changed beyond recognition by time? When had longing supplanted the new place as well? When had longing become itself a place?
When I snuck back up to Chicago as that lusting college girl, I took a tour of one of the art schools in the Loop, where I thought I might transfer to study creative writing instead of completing a journalism degree at the school where I was already enrolled, a degree I did not complete, but not because I transferred to art school. As a college staff person escorted me through the Chicago school, floor to floor, showing me painting and photography studios, I imagined living a life I would never end up living, but which, on that Saturday afternoon, seemed as real as a life I had already lived and lost, so much so that I mourned, too, for years to come, not living that life, even while having no reason to believe such living would have been better than the life I did lead. Another aspect of the nonfiction voice is a writer’s proximity to or distance from her naked and likely unreasonable wanting.
3. Let’s say a nonfiction voice listens for ways to make more and more naked use of her usual moves.
Last month I traveled back to a city where I no longer live to finish moving out of the house where my spouse and I resided for over fifteen years. While sorting through boxes of old poems and letters from childhood, a massive and dusty archive of paper that had crisscrossed the Midwest with me, I received a note on Facebook from my old high school boyfriend, who as it happened had moved to the place I was leaving just as I was completing my move back to the place where I’d begun, a synchronous crisscross so odd that we couldn’t help but pause to talk about it. I hadn’t seen this man in thirty-five years, but now he was at the door of my half-packed house, stopping by to take me to lunch, looking much like he’d always looked except partially gray now, and taller than me, neither of which had been the case when we were both sixteen and lusting for something in, or around, or on the other side of each other.
Upon seeing him again after all these years, I led him to the place in my former neighborhood that I’ve missed the most since my recent move away, a multiethnic market in what used to be a Sears department store. When we were young together, one of the first things he told me, after introducing himself as an artist, was that he was half-Mexican and half-Polish, which was not so uncommon in the mill suburbs where we came of age; I am myself Croatian and Polish, which was probably one of the first things I told him, after introducing myself as a writer.
Now at lunch, looking around the inner-city market, the first thing he said was, “Oh, thank you, some brown people,” explaining that he and his wife had just moved to a house in the open space north and east of this Minnesota city, where half-Mexicans and half-Poles were not so common. I told him that my spouse and I live now in the old gay neighborhood of Chicago, the part of the city that had been just starting to be gay when he and his wife had lived their young professional lives on those streets, living the kind of lives all the young, straight professionals who live around us now are living. My neighborhood is known today as one of the gayest spots in the world, but this means the gayest spots for gay men; my spouse and I know that we’ll have to move farther north if we want to be able to say, “Oh, thank you, some lesbian people.”
My old boyfriend and I laughed at the funniness of our reversal, then stripped down just enough to tell each other the hardest things we’d survived so far, realizing that this, the bare here and now, was unimaginable back when we drove around the old neighborhoods in junky cars, getting high and partially undressing under yellow streetlights, talking about being artists, talking about everything we would want and refuse. Another aspect of the nonfiction voice is the writer’s naked use of her hopelessly repeating patterns.
Let’s say Resistance. Desire. Pattern. Push-pull and circle. Let’s say we don’t write nonfiction because of what happened. We write to press our most personal skin against what happened, and into what we think about what happened, and readers will read us if they like how we see, and say, what we saw. The naked nonfictional voice is a blueprint, a thumbprint, a body scan, a deep burlesque. Let’s say this naked ringing is how we crisscross and call out all that has been ours alone, under our clothes.