One of the first questions I ask myself when I begin a new creative non-fiction work, short- or long-form, is existential in nature (and stolen from Shakespeare). To be or not to be? Am I going to appear in my work or not? Or, to what degree am I going to be present? Because in creative non-fiction, the author is always there, if not as an explicit ‘I’ then as the organising consciousness hovering over the work, palpable in thematic, structural and stylistic choices, with all their implicit assumptions.
Susan Griffin, for example, in her historical study of courtesans cannot fool us (nor does she wish to, I suspect) into thinking her work is dispassionate scholarship. Already the book’s title, ‘The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues’ implies that there is a subjectivity, a feminist subjectivity, here at work; that she is set on a mission to reclaim the dignity of her subjects. Yet authors are usually present in their creative non-fiction on deeper levels than the political. Griffin’s analysis of the phenomenon of courtesans is filtered through her views on human psychology and behaviour. Take, for example, these observations in her re-telling of Veronica Franco’s story: ‘“brilliance” is fundamentally a sensual word’ or ‘wit is an androgynous art … [it] requires a delicate sense of balance, part of the diplomacy that is the soul of wit’.
When authors explore big issues, or stories of others far removed from their own lives, like Griffin has, they might think that inserting themselves explicitly into their work isn’t necessary – at least the earlier stages of research and development. But sometimes the author’s involvement with their subject becomes so intense that keeping one’s self out completely can actually diminish the work’s integrity. Consider two classics of literary reportage: ‘Thy Neighbour’s Wife’ by Gay Talese and ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote. After giving central stage to the people they spent years studying (sexual adventurers in the former case and murderers in the latter), the authors ended up writing themselves into the very last pages, albeit in the third person, to make the works feel more complete and more authentic. Capote, humbly, is ‘the journalist with whom he [the murderer-protagonist] corresponded and who was periodically was allowed to visit’. Talese is ‘Talese’ and his more personal, even vulnerable, appearance enlivens an otherwise emotionally pared-back book.
More often, though, creative non-fiction writers are right there in their work, with their ‘I’s throughout. Which, to my mind, is a good thing. Authorial presence is at the heart of the appeal of creative non-fiction – and the best of the genre present us with the inner-workings of consciousness. Or, more poetically, in the words of David Shields, with the ‘theatre of the brain’. While we usually don’t get access to the minds of the writer’s subjects as we do in fiction (although Capote and Talese subvert this convention), we can still access the writer’s interior and thus become more involved in the story. Authorial presence can imbue work with emotional urgency and raise the stakes.
Helen Garner is the master of using self to make her investigative journalism feel urgent. In my favourite book of hers, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’, which explores the Canberra-based murder of a young man by his girlfriend and her accomplice friend, Garner questions her own motives for writing the story and her biases in how she interprets the case. This is how she frames the book at the start: ‘I went to Canberra because the break-up of my marriage left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to … see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone.’ Garner’s clarity about her own vulnerability, her flawed humanity, provides stark contrast to the opaqueness of the murderers’ motives and the disturbing complicity of some other people from their milieu. Her candour can also prompt us, the readers, to question our own motives and biases as we contemplate the ethical questions this murder raises, as well as the general complexity of human psyche.
Most frequently I, too, choose to use ‘I’ in my work. The next decision I then have to make is to what degree I am going to appear there. If it’s a memoir or a personal essay, the answer seems easy. Memoirists and personal essayists are the heroes of their dramas. Or are they? Actually, more than a few memoirs and personal essays focus on significant relationships in authors’ lives. In such works, writers might cast themselves as the Nick Carraways to their versions of the Great Gatsbys, shining the spotlight on the true heroes of their tales. A great example of this is Ann Patchett’s memoir ‘Truth and Beauty’, which recounts the demise of her close friend, another wonderful writer, Lucy Grealy, who at the age of 39 died from an overdose, or possibly by suicide. Although Patchett is very much present in the story and, like Garner, is clear about her own motives, as a character in the story she is the sidekick. Her focus is always on understanding what happened to Lucy, as well as on the dynamics of their friendship, which is just another way of shedding light on Lucy’s tale. By the end of the book we know little about Patchett’s personal life outside of what is relevant to the friendship story, although we know enough to feel the magnitude of her loss.
And sometimes, with longer works in particular, questions of self and its shades cannot be dealt and done with just once. In the book of creative non-fiction I’m currently finishing writing, ‘Imperfect’, I have had to ask myself these questions in every chapter.
The central argument in ‘Imperfect’ is that the way we look, our physical appearance, can shape our lives in many ways. The book explores these ways, and also what we can do when this shaping is incompatible with our wishes. I decided not to label ‘Imperfect’ as a particular sub-genre of creative non-fiction, but to use whatever means I had to try and answer my questions. So, I used a memoir component (my own story of living with disfiguring scars); I looked at academic research, art and popular culture; and I did some journalism, attending relevant conventions and interviewing people such as extreme body modifiers, whose appearance, like mine, deviates from the norm. Then, as I began writing, I had to decide what shade of myself would best serve each chapter (organised thematically). In several chapters, I ended up being the heroine, looming in the centre. In some others, I’m the sidekick, Patchett-style, to people I interviewed. In yet others, I’m part-journalist, part-detective, part-personal-seeker. And in possibly the chapter most central to the book, I’m a little bit memoirist, but mostly a somewhat disembodied cultural critic – a cross between a personal and more polemic essayist.
You would think that after working all this out, I would finally leave the question of self alone and devote myself to other problem-solving. But no. Creative non-fiction writers (or maybe it’s just me?) seem to never be properly done with their damn selves, I’m sorry to tell you. Now that I’m revising, and revising, and revising ‘Imperfect’, I’m pre-occupied with the following question: what parts of myself should I present in this book? Is it, say, relevant that I love cooking middle-eastern food, or that at fourteen, I rebelled against my religious parents? Well, not that much, even if the latter fact is one of the foundational stones of my psyche.
See, our selves are varied and complex, and to try to depict myself in all my multidimensionality would be just as exhausting (and unnecessary) for my readers as it would be for me. It’s commonly understood among creative non-fiction writers, and also dedicated readers, that the ‘I’ in a work doesn’t equal the author, that it is a version of them shaped to fit the story. But how do you know which parts of you belong in each new work you write? And how do you write just parts of yourself without losing the essence of you?
Well, that is already another story. Shall we call it ‘Fifty Shades of Self Darker?’
This post was originally published in Victorian Writer magazine