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Reality Hunger November 7, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street, Writing.

“Anything processed by memory is fiction”
— from Luc Sante’s review of Reality Hunger — A Manifesto

No, I haven’t been writing much here lately and I’m overdue on a writing assignment of particular personal importance but instead on Friday night I was participating in a TheRumpus.Net poetry book club discussion with Elizabeth Alexander. When it was over my eyes wandered over to the sidebar of The Rumpus to the review quoted above which reminded me how much I want to read Reality Hunger. So instead of my intended writing assignment, here I am writing this instead.

I immediately ordered the book from Alibris. (I am officially done with Amazon forever because of our experience with A Howling in the Wires. If you’ve ordered a book there and been told it’s out of stock its because we will loose money on every book we sell there. On sales from Alibris we’ll actually make money, and if you buy someone else’s copy on the cheap that’s OK even if the profits from new sales go to Hana Morris but we want you to read these people’s words.)

So, I ordered the book, even though I’m trying not to spend too much money at the moment. Go read Read the review, as it gives some insight to what Toulouse Street is, what Wet Bank Guide was, what I’m writing now but largely in private for the moment, just about everything I’ve written outside of poetry for the last five years. Reality is not just the flavor of the moment: it’s who we are as Americans as we drift through our i-Pod sound-tracked lives of reality-TV flavored drama.

The subject of the book (and the style of this blog and so much of what I write) is Creative Non-Fiction, a way of writing from life’s actual events. It seems an Odd combination of words. If it is non-fiction, then is must be true, so how does creative enter into it? Those of us trained as journalists understand this thinking. The people who watch Keith Olberman and Bill O’Rielly think they understand this, think they are watching the news but instead they experiencing a P.T. Barnum version of reality, a form of entertainment that samples the news the way hip-hop artists sample R&B for their own ends.

Perhaps people love those shows and the dozens of reality shows on television because reality hurts, and I think the ultimately enjoy watching someone else suffer as a way of transferring their own suffering. We haven’t advanced that much from the Roman Coliseum or bear baiting as a feature of the town fair. Writing from reality hurts, real creative non-fiction in which the events of memory and experience are transformed into something compelling hurts and can (I know too well) be hurtful, but in the end perhaps it’s less hurtful than escape: better to escape into our lives as a way out into the real world than to escape away from our lives, better to pluck out the headphones, pull the cable box out of the wall, put down the Crackberry and Live. (Do not tab over to Facebook while you are reading this, or secretly embedded code will forward randomly selected emails in our outbox to random recipients and then you’ll really get my point. For reals, as my son says).

(For the record, I am listening to Koyaanisqatsi as I write this. We all want a sound track. Disney gets this. If you’re ever there, listen. There is an entire sound scape embedded in the experience.)

Creative non-fiction is more than the television fantasy of Housewives or Runway or your favorite politicized news program. It is reality filtered through memory and the creative impulse. Unlike reality television it does not try to fit the moments by edting into the original concept. Writing creative non-fiction is a attempt to discover the concept, the order of the world, and the preconceived idea you sit down is often gone by the time you hit Save for the last time.

An essay is an act of imagination. It still takes quite as much art as fiction
— Suffering from ‘novel nausea’, Zadie Smith wonders if the essay lives up to its promise

It is weird that a link into ToulouseStreet.net I fond when I took a break for a minute took my directly to that quote.

Writing creative non-fiction is born of the same drive to give structure and beauty to the world that once drove the novelist and story teller. It is an attempt to elevate the hum drum the way my father once practiced a form of modern architecture sometimes called “Brutalist, which exposed the structural elements of construction, made of ducts and girders a part of the aesthetic experience of the place. And yet it could be beautiful. Of all the building in this city you don’t have to accept that the Rivergate was a beautiful building but it was in its combination of stark functionality with beautiful forms.

If reality hurts and can be hurtful why do we flock to watch our reality shows or read pseudo-memoirs or platform books (books by people who are not writers but simply people with a built in audience, a ready market to move the merchandise? Because so much of the media has discovered what Disney figured out long ago. The faux New Orleans entrance to their parks is much nicer if you’ve got the kids in tow than the real thing, that the Disney version of the future is much more pleasant that contemplating your own tomorrow, that strapping yourself into a seat and pretending to go to Mars is much more manageable than stuffing yourself into a little metal box and actually going there.

People really used to do that, strap themselves into flimsy aluminum capsules planted atop thousands of gallons of highly explosive fuel, and go where no one has gone before. And it was not just the astronauts of my youth but all of those Portuguese and Spanish folks whose names you learned in history class but have long since forgotten, the long list of knights of the Arctic quest who lie buried in the ice. I wonder sometimes if we are the same people or if we have become too diluted by prosperity. We won’t come up with the money to figure out a way to stuff a couple of ourselves into that little metal box and actually shoot ourselves at Mars but there are millions of people who will stuff themselves into cargo containers or the wheel well of a jetliner to try to get her and get a piece of our action.

I am willing to stuff myself into that box to get where I am driven to go. It’s seems easier in writing until the words on the page spill out into your life and wreak havoc but I still can’t stop. I am as committed as Magellan, a willing prisoner of the prevailing currents and trade winds and there’s no turning back. I could no more stop writing—stop writing what I am writing, in the style I am writing–than I could willfully stop my heart. If I had to stop, my heart might just as well. (And maybe in those last few lines, perhaps in this whole piece what I’m doing unconsciously drafting part of that formal writing assignment, but that’s a story for another time.)

I was raised on traditional literature and do not watch Hell’s Kitchen or the cable news any longer, perhaps because I am more interested in the drama of real life than in the tarted up accounts of banal mainstream cable television, which is why I almost cried when I got an email telling me we had an order for two copies of A Howling in the Wires for the Louisiana State Library, the state’s equivalent of the Library of Congress.

Seriously. I had to put the phone down and sat there and watch my cigarette on the smoker’s balcony slowly consume itself in the ashtray and slowly absorb that all of those words from all our contributors, all of that pain and joy and struggle and truth, was going to live on if only in a dusty shelf somewhere in Baton Rouge. It was a dream I had carried and nurtured for five years, and in that small moment it was realized in a way that transcended any number of other copies we might sell. I couldn’t have been more pleased if I had seen a table heaped with copies of the book at Barnes and Noble.

Putting that book together was painful, reading all of those words from right after Katrina from so many voices. One line in particular (which I knew well before I read it, because it was a recorded spoken word piece that has lived on my I-Pod for over a year) was so painfully and wrenchingly powerful, a line that spoke at once for tens of thousands and at the same time perfectly summarized my own state of mind for the last five years. It is now inked on my arm. I wanted the fleur de lis tattoo for a long time, a permanent badge of my attachment to this city that only death could take away. But the words, the words had to be there, too, because of the story I have spent the last five years telling, that the contributors to A Howling in the Wires shared with us.

I will go to my grave reminded of those words but it is not as if I would ever forget them “I am not alright but I am upright.” I do not know what New Orleans’s official motto is and won’t stop to look it up, but this is what should be emblazoned beneath the seal, summarizes what all of those authors and poets and bloggers spoke of, the shared experience we sought to capture for posterity before it vanished into the dark, forgotten corners of the Internet, my own inner state for all this time since.

I only started writing seriously a few years ago, driven by the impulse of Katrina. While I was writing Wet Bank Guide I managed to get a half-dozen chapters with an outline for more of a novel but laid that aside and worked instead on telling a more important story in a way that just seemed to flow out naturally before I knew there was a genre called creative non-fiction.

I keep writing. I just haven’t been posting it here. That will resume at some point but for now I want you to try this: close the web browser, open up Word or whatever you have and think of something you did today or something that happened to you and write it down. (If you’re one of the bloggers who reads Toulouse Street you can disregard this unless your current post or post idea is something impersonal). If nothing occurs to you, write down something you wish had happened today, or hope will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Part of the formal writing assignment I am not accomplishing by writing this suggests writing about dreams and aspirations. In Friday night’s poetry book club discussion I brought up a quote Alexander’s work at one point in the context of the discussion, from her poem Peccant: “Komunyakaa the poet says, don’t write what you know/write what you are willing to discover…”

All writing is a process of discovery, but writing creative non-fiction is particularly so, especially if you are writing from your own personal experience. In this kind of writing there is certainly the potential for pain, but there is also the potential for Beauty and for Truth, and in the best of all worlds, as the poet Keats suggests, both. Even if it hurts to write it or read it truth is dying in this world as the alphas perfect the art of fascism and try to realize Orwell’s 1984 substituting the opulence of the shopping mall for rationing.

Our own little lies, the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell the people we love and our co-workers and our children, the ones we pledge allegiance to at work (the corporate mission floating on our screen savers), the ones we embrace in political dialogue: all of these make possible the construction of the modern Ministry of Truth. By these lies we all die a little bit each day, separately and as a society. Perhaps Creative Non-Fiction is not just a reaction to the media market but a genuine upwelling of thoughtful people who realize that fiction is not enough. If we are going to set our lives and our world in order, what is needed is reality, thoughtfully taken apart and put together in words (or music or film) in a way that helps us to see more clearly the truth.

Because (one hopes) then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”


1. Marco - November 8, 2010

Keep on standing upright!
I was listening to Harry Shearer yesterday in the car. Have to find out who the NOLA native guitar was. He said he was born and lowered in NOLA.


2. The truth shall set you free « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - March 15, 2011

[…] ground, on which influential writers like Stephen Elliott (Adderral Diaries) and Dave Shields (Reality Hunger) question the very possibility of objectivity in non-fiction, and in Shields’ case defending […]


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