Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Structure and Truth: John McPhee's Coming Into the Country

I'm taking a class in writing a non-fiction book proposal for a memoir, and the professor said last week that fiction is much easier to write than nonfiction because you can tweak things to suit your needs. But, he said, it is OK to tweak nonfiction a little---if something happened on a Tuesday and you need it to be a Wednesday, you can make those little changes in the interest of the plot.

Well I vehemently disagree. (I also disagree that fiction is easier---I find it nearly impossible to make things up.) For one thing, there a slippery slope problem, for both writer and reader. You change the day of the week, and then you add a sibling, and next thing you know the splinter you got was a life threatening tree branch through your spleen and two months in the hospital, and if the reader finds that one detail is inaccurate they will doubt the rest of the story no matter how true it is. I also think that memory is a very tricky thing, so if you happen to be writing from your own experience and memory, then changing something small on paper may change it permanently in your memory as well.

But more importantly, the nature of the nonfiction beast is to work with what you have. It's like a Project Runway challenge where they have to make a dress out of produce and someone sneaks in a bit of silk. Does it make the dress better? Maybe it does. Or maybe it takes away from the weird, brilliant things you have to do to corn cobs to make them into clothing. Is it fair play? Eh, I don't really think so.

Stretching the Truth

But others might think it is OK. David Sedaris has admitted embellishing, in some cases quite a lot. Most people don't seem to care, although I am disappointed (which is probably another post). In a different kind of example of stretching the truth, there is a beautifully written memoir called Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman. Aciman's wealthy and entertaining family migrated from Italy to Turkey and then to Egypt, where he grew up, and his memoir is of the family and his childhood. In the book, Aciman includes elaborate conversations that happened before he was born, and all kinds of details about things that he could not have witnessed or that he witnessed very young. Yes, he drew on family stories and the memories of others, but there is a ton in Out of Egypt that cant possibly be anywhere near accurate, although hopefully it captures the essence of the truth.

When I read Out of Egypt in a grad school course some students accepted Aciman's style without question, while most took the reasonable view that such scene recreation is acceptable, and even encouraged, as long as there are built in caveats (which Aciman did not have), such as "I imagine the conversation was like this," or "My mother always told me the story that went like this," or "My memory is faded, but I think it was like this." Generally I agree with using modifiers, and I actually really like them as a style choice when writing about memories, but two things make me OK with Aciman's style in this book.

1) He is so over the top and obvious in his embellishment. We KNOW he didn't hear his aunts chatting while his mom was pregnant with him---its not even a question. He is also so colorful in his language and scenes that the whole book to me is an approximation of how he felt in this family in this time and place, and not a realistic document.

2) Stylistically, he is one of the best writers living, and being good lets you get away with stuff.

John McPhee and Structure

This brings me to my original point. I took a class with writer John McPhee in college, and McPhee is a stickler for the absolute truth, in fact his course was called The Literature of Fact. I think this was in part because of the time period he began writing in (the 50s and 60s, arguably before the birth of modern "creative nonfiction"), in part because he was a journalist by training who started out at Time magazine and has been at the New Yorker since, and in part personal preference. Mr. McPhee spent much of the course going over the structure he used in his many books, most of which began as book-length New Yorker pieces. The one which I want to mention here is Coming into the Country, which is an account of a trip to Alaska. The trip was lengthy, maybe a month or two, but McPhee said the most exciting part of the trip was seeing a grizzly bear, which happened on the second day of this long trip. McPhee generally writes in chronological order, but he had to get that grizzly to be the climax of the book.

Well a lot of people would just pretend it happened at the end of the trip, but McPhee couldn't do that. Instead he ended up with a structure like a spiral, that ended up moving back in forth in time so that the second day of trip was at the end of the book. I wish I had my notes and could tell you more details about the spiral, but this thing was so carefully constructed so that any reader paying attention could track exactly when and where every piece of this trip took place. The book was not only beautiful, as all of McPhee's writing is, but a documental record of this trip.

I'm all for that. I think finding clever ways around your less than perfect source material is part of the fun, and usually makes the piece turn out more interesting. And as a reader, I like to know that an account is as accurate as possible, as far as the writer is concerned, that if things did not happen this way, then the writer was simply mistaken.

Two Sidenotes

First, Mr. McPhee told us that during revision of a piece, he would take each bit of his piece of writing and put it on a Post It, and move the post its all around looking for his structure. I find that works very well---you can also print a copy of your draft and cut it up with scissors and move it around. It also helps me in revision to write in the margin my every paragraph what the point of the paragraph is, and look at the structure of the piece that way, which is a variation on McPhee's post its.

Second, I have worked as a journalist and so written a ton of stuff full of quotations. There is debate over how much to clean up quotations: most everyone agrees that "We, uh, opened a, uh, you know, Cuban restaurant" can be changed to "We opened a Cuban restaurant," but I wouldn't change "A Cuban restaurant. We opened it." to "We opened a Cuban restaurant." I've probably done it once or twice, but for me that is a dangerous slope, and I believe in the sanctity of quotations, so I would either call the source back and reinterview them a bit or use "We opened [a Cuban restaurant]."

The reason I bring this up here is that McPhee is known for long blocks of solid quotations where his subjects just talk and talk and talk about roadkill or tennis or long-distance trucking. Well I know those speeches didn't come out of their mouths so cleanly, and while I know McPhee writes down everything he hears on his reporting jaunts, and I believe that every word in those quotes was said that way and in that context, this is the one place that McPhee clearly feels comfortable making a small sacrifice of deadly accuracy to readability.


  1. David Sedaris just *can't* be telling the truth all the time... I can't believe his life is that ridiculous. But he's a humorist, and he makes me laugh, so I like him. I loved "Coming Into the Country" - it's m favorite McPhee work!

  2. Nope, he is pretty open about embellishing I think.

  3. Truth versus facts is a fascinating topic for writers. Sometimes the story is better served by altering some facts. One book reviewer critiqued writers of memoirs for being too stuck on the "truth" that the writing ends up not telling the whole story. One author he referenced had written a fictitious book about a woman who had an incestuous relationship with her father. Years later, she wrote her memoir about her own incestuous relationship with her dad, and the reviewer said the "fictitious" version felt truer because the author was freed from the "facts". The fiction allowed her to go deeper than she could in her own memoir.

    Great essay, Emily! I look forward to reading more.