In Defense of Narrative in Creative Nonfiction
Is it just me, or has narrative fallen out of favor with a large number of creative nonfiction writers? While I admire the lyric, the experimental, and all the forms that we continue to create in this extremely elastic genre, I still encourage young writers not to be so quick to dismiss narrative because narrative has much to teach us about the line of inquiry we take into our material even if we’re not interested in telling stories. From narrative, we learn about the treatment of characters, including our own; the contemplation of detail; the route to the often contradictory sensibility of the essayist; the pathway to the essays that call us urgently to the page; the means by which we consider the plurality of the lived life. Narrative gives us the foundation from which to diverge when the material, or our own personal aesthetics, require it.
Even in essays that rely on fragmented forms to interrogate a subject—essays such as “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss—the unknown is often deepened and made more knowable, and yet at the same time, strangely enough, more unknowable, through techniques associated with narrative.
The essay focuses on the author’s difficulty responding to doctors who ask her to rate the degree of her pain on a scale from 0-10. Biss, through the art of association, keeps expanding the personal leaps into larger questions of human suffering. The first questions in the essay appear in its fifth section and read as follows: “If no pain is possible, then, another question—is no pain desirable? Does the absence of pain equal the absence of everything?” These two questions are preceded by sections that state the problematic concepts of Christ and zero and the difficulty of believing that either is substantial or effectual, along with a brief section that begins, “I am sitting in the exam room of a hospital entertaining the idea that absolutely no pain is not possible.” Granted, this isn’t what we’d call narrative, but it does have the bare bones of story: a specific someone is in a specific place, doing something, even if that something is only the act of thinking. It leads to the observation, “All our sins are for zero.” Naturally, I can’t help but hear the unstated parallel observation, the line that I provide because of the accretion of fragments: “Is our suffering for nothing?” The fourth section consists of a single line, “Aristotle, for one, did not believe in Zero.” Again, this line has the shadow of a story, the story of Aristotle and his belief that zero, like infinity, was an idea and not an actual number. It’s this thought that propels Biss to the section in which she questions whether no pain is possible. It’s this shadow of a story, when added to the contemplations that have come before it, that leads to the question of whether living in no pain equals not living at all. The central inquiry of the essay arrives with the help of these hints of narrative.
At the end of the essay, Biss quotes from statements from patients that the American Pain Foundation have gathered: “constant muscle aches, spasms, sleeplessness, pain, can’t focus. . .must be depression. . .two suicide attempts later, electroshock therapy and locked down wards. . . .” The longer narratives that these quotes suggest—these stories of people’s suffering—leads Biss to the penultimate section: “The description of hurricane-force winds on the Beaufort scale is simply ‘devastation occurs.’” This fact takes us to the last section, one that reads, “Bringing us, of course, back to zero.” I would argue that narrative, in its scantest form, has helped make possible the associations and meditations, thereby expanding the inquiry into the nature and value of pain. Imagine the white space that separates the penultimate section of the essay from the last, the space that hovers between the final image of devastation and the return to zero. That pause, that breath, that chasm we have to traverse to get to the end: that, even that, is narrative. It makes us wait to see what comes next.
Thanks for that support, Christine!
A welcome defense here, Lee. Lyric and experimental essays seem to be touted, by editors and writers, as more imaginative, suggestive and artful than narrative pieces(I’m thinking here of the essay world).
Coming up with some novel way to structure an experience or one’s thoughts is really prized, but so much of the originality in form and structure seems precious and strained, and tends to shipwreck the emotional force of the material on the shoals of form.
I also get the sense that too much emphasis is given to having the reader co-construct the meaning of a piece, as if a narrating of events dulls a reader. For those of us who thrive on laying out what happened and analyzing it on the page, the demand that we replace our direct musing with symbls and all manner of oblique moves(white space galore, sly non-sequiturs etc.) , is a call to deprive ourselves of our natural way of living through language.
Not to dismiss non- linear narrative here. Richard Rodriguez does wonders with the mosaic approach in Eminent Victorians, for instance.
Thanks for your good thoughts, Stuart.
Wow! Just catching up with your great blog, Lee, and this piece is masterful. Telling a story well, in whatever form, is not easy. I agree that we seem to be in a phase where “overt” storytelling is sometimes given short shrift in nonfiction in favor of clever presentation.