the nonfiction contract

The Great Courses series I currently have on my iPod is Writing Creative Nonfiction. One of the points that the instructor, Tilar J. Mazzeo, spends a lot of time discussing, almost to the point of distraction, is what she calls the nonfiction contract. This simply means that if you portray something as nonfiction, the work, all of it, needs to represent the truth.

Mazzeo does not seem to acknowledge the degree to which writers violate this contract every day, though she does spend some time on one of the most egregious violations, the book A Million Little Pieces, published in 2003 as a memoir, which turned out to be strictly fiction.

Usually the cases are more subtle, as I discussed 2008. Here’s what I said then.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I read Looking Back by Joyce Maynard. Maynard is exactly my age and graduated from high school in 1971 as I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as her reflections on life and society very much resonated with mine. Maynard, you will recall, lived with J.D. Salinger for a while when she was nineteen. She chronicles this relationship, as well as her high school years in At Home in the World, published in 1998. She describes how what she wrote in Looking Back and her other writing of the time reflected what she thought her publishers and readers wanted, and not what she really felt and believed at all.

Several years ago I read John Steinbeck‘s book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, in which he chronicles an expedition through the Gulf of California he took with his friend of Cannery Row fame, Ed Ricketts. I seem to recall Steinbeck recounting his wife waving goodbye on the dock as they left Monterey. In any case she is not on the trip as recounted in the book. In 2002 Andromeda Romano-Lax published Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. She recounts the trip she and her family took re-tracing Steinbeck’s voyage and provides some background to the original trip. She mentions that Steinbeck’s marriage was heading into difficult times around the time of the adventure, and that not only was his wife on the Western Flyer with Steinbeck, Ricketts, and the crew, but she did almost all of the meal preparation. But Steinbeck chose to write her out of the book.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, wrote in The Long Loneliness of a solo pilgrimage she took to various places in Europe that held meaning for her. The only problem was this was actually a honeymoon trip, according to Paul Elie, in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. But then Elie’s book documents many discrepancies between Day’s life and writing, as well as that of Thomas Merton. (Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, the other two subjects of the book, don’t escape criticism, but since they wrote mostly fiction the discrepancies are not there to highlight.)

Wendy Merrill, author of Falling Into Manholes, which is classified as biography, told Sedge Thomson in an interview on West Coast Live that to avoid potential legal problems she not only changed names, but circumstances and events as well, and sometimes combined multiple individuals into one.

Sometimes a novel is said to be a “thinly disguised” autobiography, but I’m realizing that we may want to recognize that the “non” in “non-fiction” may not be as accurate or true as we generally want to believe. Maybe we need to appreciate some of our books at face value, and not expect all of our autobiographies and memoirs to be “true” in the strictest sense of the word.

I don’t think anything has changed since 2008. Earlier this year the writer John D’Agata aired his own dirty laundry in a book that described his dispute with a fact checker. D’Agata had no issues with altering facts for the sake of art, literary rhythm or flow. His fact checker felt otherwise.

As for this blog, my contract with you, dear reader, remains unchanged. Everything I say about my life is true, but I will not say everything about my life.


technology and spiritual direction

I wrote about not having an office on site at work any longer and becoming a full-time teleworker. One of the downsides was that my spiritual director was only ten minutes from my office. Getting to see her now was going to be a whole lot more difficult. Here’s what I said in my email to her about how much harder it would be to get to see her.

And logistics now appear to be a headache. Last time I drove in it was an hour and twenty-five minutes. No accidents – just people back to school and work. And I know [Highway] 101 to Sunnyvale will be worse. Then Google Maps tells me that it’s a half hour from Moffett Towers to your office (as opposed to ten minutes before). After that it’s 30 minutes back or an hour home. And I have to get lunch in there.

I was not seeing how this would work. Then I thought, well, we each have an iPad 2. There’s FaceTime. I asked her if she would be willing to give it a try. She was. We met via FaceTime last week and it worked remarkably well. I’ll try to make it into her office every once in a while, but at least now I know that I’ll be able to meet with my spiritual director on a regular basis, even if it is a virtual meeting.

That makes me feel good.


shifting around the high tech tools

I have a very nice notebook computer that has been badly neglected since I got my iPad. Meanwhile, there’s my kitchen mini notebook, which also has been neglected, despite the 500+ recipes it contains. I pulled out the kitchen mini the other day and realized that one reason it wasn’t getting used was probably due to the tiny screen. So, I thought, why not put the notebook in the kitchen and the mini on eBay?

I moved my recipe database to the notebook and was amazed at the difference. I think it will get a lot more use now. And the notebook in its new role will not be single-use like the mini. It will continue to be the computer for photos when we travel, and fill in in some other ways as well.

I think it’s a good shifting of resources.


Sacred Music Friday: Nunc dimittis, Gustav Holst

Earlier this week I mentioned the Nunc dimittis (Now, Lord, let you servant go in peace). Here is an absolutely stunning setting by Gustav Holst.


many ways

One of the ways I deal with the stress of the work world is to turn to Buddhism. I subscribe to the Daily Dharma from the good folks at Tricycle. Last week they offered a quote from one of my very favorite Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield. He tells us:

There are many ways up the mountain, but each of us must choose a practice that feels true to his own heart. It is not necessary for you to evaluate the practices chosen by others.

That second sentence made me, um, sit up and pay attention.


Miss Manners a Buddhist?

Well, probably not. But this is how I got there.

I mentioned Miss Manners in my blog last week. I realized that even though we get her once a week or so in the San Francisco Chronicle, I haven’t been reading her. I started again, and I forgot what a treat I had been missing. She is both practical and witty.

There’s a another aspect to Miss Manners which I see very consistently.

A woman wrote in saying that she lived in a condo where half the residents spoke Spanish. She talks about going into the exercise room to work out. She said, “The only other person there was one of my neighbors, whom I did not know, who had the TV tuned to a Spanish-language station. Would I be justified in asking her to switch to an English-language station, or in insisting on such a change by changing the station myself?” Miss Manners response was, “Assuming that you don’t mind alienating a neighbor, and probably a minimum of half of your fellow residents when word gets around, on what grounds would you make such a demand? By Miss Manners’ count, half of the occupants of that room wanted the Spanish station, and that half was there first.”

Another individual wrote stating that he (or she) had read that it was not acceptable to invite only half of a couple to a social event. The questioner stated, “Isn’t part of entertaining finding a good mix of people to invite? It seems to me that sometimes that might not include inviting significant others.” Miss Manners responded that while the way around this is to design events that are only of interest to one member of the couple, she admonishes the questioner for having an attitude of “making clear to your friends that you can pick interesting people for an evening better than they can for a lifetime.”

To a woman who wanted to ask wedding guests to wear a choice of five specific colors to the ceremony, Miss Manners responded, “…trust them to dress themselves. Miss Manners begs you not to think of your wedding guests as part of your decorating scheme.”

What do all of these responses have in common? They all admonish the questioners to let go of their egos. And how Buddhist is that?


liturgy and its variations

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know how important liturgy is for me, and that I have made a deliberate decision to be part of a liturgical denomination.

While I was listening to The Catholic Church: A History from The Great Courses, an engaging series of lectures, by the way, I therefore paid special attention to the comments on liturgy.

One comment that caught my attention is that Catholics sing “Lamb of God” before Communion. Lutherans do as well. In the Episcopal Church we go straight to the Communion music.

Catholics, according to the professor, William R. Cook, say the Nicene Creed each week, as do Episcopalians. In the Episcopal Church it is after the sermon. Lutherans sing the hymn of the day at that point and don’t say a creed every Sunday.

He mentioned that a non-Latin rite in the Catholic Church shares the Peace before Communion, as do Lutherans and Episcopalians. The vast majority of the Catholic Church is in the Latin Rite, and they share the peace, I understand, later in the service.

The Lutheran Church sings an Alleluia before and after the Gospel. Episcopalians sing a hymn related to the reading.

Episcopalians say the confession most Sundays. Lutherans say a confession occasionally, but it’s not integrated into the normal Sunday liturgy.

Lutherans end the service with “Thanks the Lord and sing his praise,” or the Nunc Dimittis (“Now Lord, let your servant go in peace…”). In the Episcopal Church the service ends with a hymn.

It’s not that these differences are important in any way, but I do find it interesting to see how the three main liturgical denominations in the United States vary in their practice.