Quothing the Raven

July 19, 2007 | 30 comments
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Some weeks ago a friend (an archaeologist and therefore a man of science) and I were discussing a nature writer who was coming to town to promote his latest book. I asked my friend if he liked this writer’s work. He said he did. I said that I did, too, and that I thought this writer one of the better nature writers out there. My friend agreed then added, “Although I wonder if a lot of them aren’t actually writing fiction.”

Fiction isn’t exactly the word, but I knew what he meant. Many of you may be familiar with the opening scene in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I used to have a cat,” she says, “an old fighting tom…” The book’s first paragraph describes this cat’s habit of jumping through an open window at night and leaping onto her chest as she slept. “And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted in roses.”

A striking scene, and a famous one. Only it isn’t true. That is, it’s true but it didn’t happen. That is, it’s true, it happened, but it didn’t happen to Ms. Dillard. She admitted to “borrowing” the story from a graduate student, after asking his permission.

When word of Dillard’s confession got out, some devotees felt betrayed. They thought the mirage Dillard created undermined the value of the whole book. Others said it was no big deal: A good story’s a good story, true or not.

Dillard’s appropriation of her grad student’s cat story tells me two things. First, she was struck by the tale. It got to her, like a bit of foreign stuff sometimes gets to an oyster (and rarely, a clam). Her imagination began reworking the tale, giving it nacre and her own striking form. In this way, she made it “her” story. Well, this is something many of us do when we hear a story we like. We set it side-by-side with the story we’ve made of our own lives; we compare, we adapt, we adopt. Furthermore, among writers and storytellers that like each other, there’s bound to be some sharing of narrative and maybe even linguistic DNA.

Second, this part of the book, and maybe other parts, slips out of the realm of what’s called realism (in its broadest sense) and into the domain of fantasy, or maybe into a kind of bothersome, self-serving mysticism that makes everything over in its own fanciful image. No use trying to hold such stories to the same standard of truth as might be applied to other narrative traditions, like scientific theory and history. Right?

All the same, in my estimation, Dillard’s mirage—this one that we know of—moves her story more toward the kind of nature tale told in Poe’s fanciful poem the “The Raven” ( a “good story,” though not likely true) rather than, say, John Muir’s love stories about glaciers (not only much more rooted in actual experience but also more productive).

There are ways in which any narrative, no matter how supported by evidence, straddles the fence between what we call fiction (totally made up stuff) and absolute truth (a.k.a the whole truth). Today’s scientific facts, and the narratives about how the world works that they support, will be supplanted by better, more functional observations and stories, just as the bastions of modern scientific inquiry have built past the Pantheon’s official storyline. “Myth” is a complicated word, but one definition is “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology” (The American Heritage Dictionary). Contemporary science, if its analytically-inclined yarn spinners weave perceptive enough narrative tapestries, could become tomorrow’s The Odyssey or Metamorphoses. Especially if there are literary nature and science writers telling the tale as they experience it, rendering mathematics physical and revelatory, psychology a matter of erupting intelligence and all its attendant problems, and belief and the search for the divine a fully involved effort.

It was kind of funny, my archaeologist friend commenting on the narrative aspect of nature writing like he did. Because when I attended the aforementioned nature writer’s book promotion, the writer presented a remarkable slideshow and commentary on archaeology and its purposes, saying, “Anybody telling a story about archaeology is telling their story.”

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30 Responses to Quothing the Raven

  1. Bob on July 19, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Nouns need Verbs to bring them to life, what do facts need? Lies? I don’t know. Barry Lopez says a lot of the same things you do about his Nature writings, I write some Family History. I have a list “starters” from a book such as: “It’s well documented”, “Some of the family says”, “Is it possible”, “Back then, children…maybe Mary did also”, ” There is a rumor”. There are about 20 things on the list. I make it a habit of picking the nearest one to start my “History/Story”.

  2. Dave on July 19, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Nice comments, Patricia. It’s hard to tell exactly what the proper expectations are for readers coming to the “creative nonfiction” genre. It’s not history or documentary–no one expects citations and source documents to support events recounted in the narrative. But it’s not fiction either–people get upset when events are exposed as too “fictional” rather than merely enhanced or reworked or composite events that actually happened to the writer. I’m not sure that defining myth as “fiction or half-truth” really advances the inquiry as it relates to modern creative nonfiction writers, most of whom would probably reject both “myth” and “half-truth” as descriptions of their work.

  3. Ray on July 19, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    My father was a brilliant man when I lived in the Deep South. When I had a particularly pointed criticism that I felt needed to be shared, I often couched it in the common terms of that area, “My daddy used to say . . .” I wasn’t quoting his actual words, so it usually wasn’t “true” literally, but it was more polite – and that was important in that culture.

    My father is not classically educated, but he is the very definition of wise and filled with common sense. He rarely sounds academic or intellectual, but he also rarely sounds ignorant. In many ways, “My daddy used to say . . .” would be translated more accurately as, “My daddy taught me that . . .” That, however, would not have sounded so familiar to the hearers – so I didn’t draw that distinction.

    I have thought often since then about what honesty really means at the root level – and particularly the possibility of being creatively honest. It’s been an interesting process.

  4. Bob on July 19, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    #3 Ray:Thanks for the quick Memory of my Dad.

  5. Kyle R on July 20, 2007 at 5:59 am

    Really enjoyable post Patricia. I’ve got to confess I’ve sometimes had the reverse experience. I’ll think of an idea and pretend it’s not mine and I’ve read it somewhere in order to give it extra authority. Or occasionally describe something remarkable that’s happened to me as having happened to someone else, to make it sound more plausible. A bit like when someone is seeking an answer to their own dilemma and says, “Well there’s this friend of mine…..” I tsk tsk myself when I do it.

    It’s interesting how scientists sometimes credit science fiction writers with generating a fictional scenario or technology that turns out to be insightful and inspires a genuine scientific development.

  6. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 20, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Bob said, “Nouns need Verbs to bring them to life, what do facts need? Lies? I don’t know.”

    I don’t know either, but I’ll hazard a guess: “Facts,” as we call these little rocks of knowledge, these little iron-clad metaphors of relation that we believe to be stable and therefore true, need perspective: They need a sense of irony. The most lively facts thrive on the tension between what we believe is going on and what actually is going on (or in the case of family history writing, what went on). And like a lot of things, animate and inanimate, they need someone who cares. Love matters a lot.

    “It’s well documented”, “Some of the family says”, “Is it possible”, “Back then, children…maybe Mary did also”, ” There is a rumor”. There are about 20 things on the list. I make it a habit of picking the nearest one to start my “History/Story”.

    These are good! What I like about them is how they allow the readers of your family history to come to their own conclusions, rather than trying to force them to accept an official storyline about a family’s identity.

  7. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 20, 2007 at 11:59 am

    Dave said, “It’s hard to tell exactly what the proper expectations are for readers coming to the “creative nonfiction” genre. It’s not history or documentary–no one expects citations and source documents to support events recounted in the narrative. But it’s not fiction either–people get upset when events are exposed as too “fictional” rather than merely enhanced or reworked or composite events that actually happened to the writer.”

    I think the question of what is narrative, or what is any stream of language that purports to string things together into rational, perhaps even aesthetically pleasing relationships, has yet to be settled. Why do we do this?

    FWIW, I don’t care much for that phrase “creative nonfiction.” It’s a name that defines itself by what it is not–non, not fiction–and then throws “creative” into the stew. But I don’t know what else to call the kind of storymaking that occurs when one narratizes one’s experience in this fashion. Personal fiction? Probably not.

    “I’m not sure that defining myth as “fiction or half-truth” really advances the inquiry as it relates to modern creative nonfiction writers, most of whom would probably reject both “myth” and “half-truth” as descriptions of their work.”

    But it might advance the inquiry into what human narrative in general is and does, a question I just can’t get out of my mind. Creative nonfiction writing is just another gem in that setting.

  8. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 20, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Ray said, “I have thought often since then about what honesty really means at the root level – and particularly the possibility of being creatively honest. It’s been an interesting process.”

    Thanks for raising this point, Ray. I know a few people for whom lying is an honest response to questions people sometimes ask that aren’t any of their business to ask r are belligerant or manipulative. This kind of response to was difficult for me to understand at first. It looked like dishonesty, but then I looked at the kinds of questions that evoked these “dishonest” responses, and I thought, “Oh … now I get it.”

  9. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 20, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Kyle said, “Or occasionally describe something remarkable that’s happened to me as having happened to someone else, to make it sound more plausible. A bit like when someone is seeking an answer to their own dilemma and says, “Well there’s this friend of mine…..” I tsk tsk myself when I do it.”

    Sounds shy. But I’ve done similar things. Blended a real event into a piece of fiction, in part to get myself out of the middle of it, to shift the focus. If it’s an especially important event, one that I think needs narratized so that others can make something of it, I don’t wish to distract from the event’s importance by standing between the reader or hearer and the event itself. At least, I try not to. My success probably varies.

  10. Ross Geddes on July 20, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    When the British writer James Herriot (Alf Wight) was alive, I lined up outside the veterinary surgery in the little town of Thirsk in Yorkshire in what I learned was a weekly ritual, to meet the great man and be presented with a signed slip of paper that could be pasted in one of his books. He impressed me as a genuinely nice man. At one point I remember him commenting on his stories, “And they’re all true.”

    Later I read the biography by Graham Lord who categorised the stories as basically fiction, although sometimes with a germ of fact behind them. I’m sure many “memoirs” are similar. Who could possibly remember all that detailed dialogue from years ago? And do such neat little endings happen very often in our own experience?

    How “true” are such books? It’s not an easy question to answer. And does it matter? As a reader I greatly enjoy memoirs and autobiographies, but I’ve come to realise that they are genre writing that follows certain conventions. Unless you’re a biographer or historian trying to arrive at “the facts”, perhaps it’s best just to enjoy the ride.

  11. Bob on July 20, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    #6:”….how they allow the readers of your family history to come to their own conclusions…” If you only knew the wars of Family History! I write from a very ‘secular’ view, California, and the D. Party. I need to work with Family in Utah (no new wars please), who want “Faith Promoting” only, Utah, and R. Party! But we do, in the end, get something done.

  12. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 20, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Ross Geddes: “Who could possibly remember all that detailed dialogue from years ago?”

    One word: journals. Not that James Herriot kept journals. I have whole conversations recorded in mine

    “How “true” are such books? It’s not an easy question to answer. And does it matter?”

    I think a lot of literature abides in truth though maybe not the truth it thinks it does. I’ve written about the problem of truth and fiction over at A Motley Vision http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=147, but I believe what I said there applies to other kinds of writing as well.

    But sometimes, I think it does matter whether or not a narrative is true. I admit to fretting about manipulative, exploitative, untrue language directed at humans or the natural world. I detest rhetoric, especially dramatic narratives, designed to box in the disabled or channel society into thinking about them in certain ways. I dislike nature writing were the writer threatens fellow human beings or so imposes him- or herself upon the landscape that the place is hardly recognizable. Many kinds of people and of course the natural world need language that generates possibilities and opens sealed passages, not lies designed to channel them and it along rhetorical cattle chutes. Yeah, sometimes it matters a lot.

    Bob said, “If you only knew the wars of Family History! …I need to work with Family in Utah (no new wars please), who want ‘Faith Promoting’ only, Utah, and R. Party!”

    I do know a little from experience working with different branches of a family for a “historical fiction,” one branch praying against the other, one asserting it had the “higher family truth.” That’s why I liked your qualifying phases. They seemed to allow readers some mobility within the narrative.

  13. Melinda on July 21, 2007 at 12:47 am

    Gilderoy Lockhart did a lot of this kind of thing.

  14. Kyle R on July 21, 2007 at 6:01 am

    # 9 Yes shyness may play a role. I suppose it depends on the primary aim of relating a given event/telling a given story. Sometimes it speaks for itself, the narrative itself is interesting, humorous or instructive. Sometimes the teller uses the story as a bracket for some particular point, in which case some editing might be in order as long as the details aren’t unwarrantably manipulated. I find that collapsing two or more events into one story – when they have a common theme and may even be loosely connected – also serves to make the point.

    Re: family history, journals, memoirs, autobiography – this is a difficult one. There’s so often an apologia, or a defence going on in them.

    # 12 Great article on Truth and Fiction Patricia. Quite struck by the line, “The shadows really are shadows, so as shadows they are real, or true”. I sometimes have this conversation with pseudo-Buddhists, who gleefully tell you that “Everything is an illusion”, as if they WANT you to dissolve into an existential panic over it. But logically, if EVERYTHING is an illusion, then you can say with equal logic that everything is real. What’s the difference.

    Truer in the end to say “It’s all just mush”.

  15. William Morris on July 21, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Kyle:
    But is it tasy mush that’s been cooked just right? That’s the real key to illusions.

  16. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 21, 2007 at 10:28 am

    “But logically, if EVERYTHING is an illusion, then you can say with equal logic that everything is real. What’s the difference.”

    Yes, logically, if everything’s an illusion, then the belief that everything’s an illusion is an illusion. Much more productive to believe that there’s always more to what’s going on than you know. More interesting, too.

  17. Bob on July 21, 2007 at 11:51 am

    I came to this Water Hole with hopes of getting some cool sips of knowledge from P.G.K. Now the likes of Dave, Kyle, William show up and I feel like am drinking from a Fire Hose!
    #12: “one asserting it had the “higher family truth.” and #14: family history, journals, memoirs, autobiography – this is a difficult one. There’s so often an apologia, or a defense going on in them.” An added problem for those doing Mormon Family History, is that it comes with a ‘Narrative’ already there ( Church History). Some can not /will not made a separation of the two.

  18. Kyle R on July 23, 2007 at 5:24 am

    #15 Agree. I like my mush – and my illusions – with lots of butter and cream.

    #16 Indeed. Weighing a reality or illusion for its interest, productive potential, proven utility, or even just its beauty – rather than how well it holds water – is the sanest and most sensible approach.

    #17 But Bob! Here I am really making an effort to restrain myself!
    It would be interesting to hear anything you had to say on the Family History/Church History problem. Is there a similar difficulty with Church History/American History?

  19. Bob on July 23, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    #18:Leave Church History/ American History alone…you’ll get us both tossed off. Why don’t you go and pick up a hot stove instead!

  20. Bob on July 23, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    #18: I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the riches of doing Family History in a Mormon setting! Who would want it any other way? Other Mormons make me look good (well my Data anyway). I just want it clear..my ‘problems’ are only different, but simpler. (Well, Polygamy is hard with software)

  21. Kyle R on July 24, 2007 at 3:20 am

    #19 But Bob, I’ve not laid a finger on Church History / American History and I promise not to do so on here. Er, a hot stove?

  22. Bob on July 24, 2007 at 10:59 am

    #21: I was too cute. But as new to this Blog, and a non-Church-Member, you would be wise to stay away from: Same Sex Marriage (SSM), Stay At Home Moms (SAHM), Home Schooling (HS), and Why BYU Football Sucks (WBYUFS). You may discuss: What to bring to a Pot Luck dinner, High-brow books or music you like, Kids (yours), Law (if Nate shows up-leave), Philosophy (many are called to answer your questions on this), and Why Liberals Are Going To Hell (WLAGTH).

  23. Bob on July 24, 2007 at 11:08 am

    #21: My Dad would ‘collect’ things from his job. My mom said “He would even steal a Hot Stove!”.

  24. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 24, 2007 at 11:48 am

    “My mom said ‘He would even steal a Hot Stove!’”.

    Love this!

  25. Kyle R on July 26, 2007 at 3:42 am

    #22 Delay in responding Bob. Was out canal boating yesterday with some liberal pals, listening to how their same sex marriage is going. As a non-Mormon and new-comer to this blog – a blog I think is great – I have many philosophical questions. It’s good to know many are called to answer them. High-brow books and music are two of my favourite subjects. Neither my daughter nor my wife are subjects I would discuss on-line. They are both a ‘marvelous work and a wonder’.

    #23 There are no hot stoves in my office and I’m in fear enough of the wages of sin to even pinch paper clips.

  26. Bob on July 26, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    #25:”canal boating yesterday with some liberal pals, listening to how their same sex marriage is going”. I know you were really listening to Handel’s Water Music. Go to the links on the right of this site for the Heavy philosophical stuff: Dave’s Mormon Inquiry, New Cool Thang, Mormon Metaphysics, etc.

  27. Bob on July 26, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    #26: My Grand/Uncle,Waldemar P. Read, taught Philosophy at the U.of Utah for about 40 years. Very Liberal, the Black Sheep of the family, many fear I carry his genes.

  28. Kyle R on July 27, 2007 at 3:51 am

    #26 & #27 Mormon Metaphysics sounds interesting.
    “Many fear I carry his genes”….hmm, sounds like a job for Free Agency Man.

  29. Kyle R on July 27, 2007 at 4:14 am

    #26 Bob thanks for the recommendation. Mormon Metaphysics looks so much more to my taste that I’ll not likely spend any more time on T&S. Perhaps catch you over there.

  30. Bob on July 27, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    #29: Go To ‘A Motley Vision’ for your Mormon Arts and Letters. Bye!

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