By S. Dorman
A few years after my beginning efforts at formal creative nonfiction, a high school English teacher informed me that, categorically, there was no creative nonfiction. I supposed he meant nonfiction with fiction sifted into it. I did not argue. However, one may use the techniques of novelists in a totally factual way. C. S. Lewis went along the edges of creative nonfiction in writing his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed.” He saw a light-beam coming through a slit above the door in his tool shed. In his essay he distinguishes between looking at this beam and being transported by it. A metaphorical example:
It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists. […] We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. (Lewis)
Novelists feel that the problem is life’s shapelessness, a certain “ridiculous fluidity.” So says Martin Amis, in his Experience: a Memoir. Further, he says, its plot is thin, one’s life may be sentimental and trite, scarce on theme. Thus, as he put it, in writing his memoir he was looking for parallels, making connections, and feeling a certain soulical urgency. He wanted a method that would yield a view of his writerly mind—its “geography.” He described the result as seeming “staccato, tangential,” stop-and-go. That’s what it was like for him at his desk.
These words are among the opening pages of Amis’s memoir. While not strictly memoir, my own creative nonfiction was, in its initial stage, elemental to memoir. As journal, its story held only secondary and little narrative interest for me, its writer. Exploring the territory of Maine was primary, engaging, exhilarating. But retracing the bare facts of the experience was derivative and dutiful; it could not engage. While the journal received an A as an undergraduate effort, my mentor felt its lack of inspiration and insight. As a method of recall, especially, it was primary to get down straightforward narrative, from notes, after each experience. And because I was not writing what I would have called a personal or self-focused journal, there was dryness and a lack of quickness in the approach.
All this began to change when I saw the possibility of reworking the material into metaphorical creative nonfiction centering on my Maine experience. Not until I began making connections, drawing parallels, researching, and working with metaphor to infuse insight, did I begin to feel my interest quicken. It was in this reworking of the material that the tangents began to push out wherever they will. Then I had hope that a reader’s interest might liven too. I told the factual experience, all facts, but in a creative manner.
I like Mr. Amis’s personal use of the word geography. Like regional geography, mind and imagination are populated with stories, histories. If one tends to find culture for her imagination in the surrounding geography, whether demographic, biological, geologic, or historical and folk culture—or all these in organic concert together—there is possibly no better place for it than Maine. Since Maine contains within her the elements of Creation in quasi microcosm, her fount of metaphor and story is as boundless as that of Creation herself. Such use of the word “her,” may even provide connection for insight: If we are exploring the hidden mythopoeia of a purportedly impersonal and objective account it may become possible to see the personal and self-focused in a tangential and sometimes capricious creative narrative.
(And might this reworking perhaps expose that self floating, as it were, on the surface of the narrative but till now unbeknownst to me? But if so, how could such knowledge surprise me out seeing that this work is based on journal writing?)
It would be a mistake to look for a cut and dried allegorical interpretation of the Maine metaphor. Such explanation would not get down into the soil, the real ground, of the work. Its stories are telling themselves, and while I certainly have a hand in, it is an oblique, not entirely awake or observant hand—especially, as said, in initial drafts.
In those drafts the hand is a groping hand. Annie Dillard gives a cuddly analogy in her metaphor-laden The Writing Life, when she comments on the absurdity of an inchworm contorting thread-like through its green “dimwit life.” Very pale, thread-thin, green, it seems too frail for life here. She proposes a minute mind in a panic, clinging to that blade of grass. It seems crying out: “What!?” Is this all there is, nothing further?? Its thin wee head reaches everywhere, searching … for more of the blade, there, beneath its questing nose.
It can be an exhilarating exercise to write oneself into a corner (especially with academic papers!). If you are lucky you may realize you don’t know enough. Then you begin to look at your material (and experience) carefully, attentively, seeking out possibilities. You go into the books, books written by people who have studied the material aspects of life, the scientists, historians, botanists. Just what was it you looked at that day, what made that peculiar scent; why was that creature doing that dance? Why that quavering sound at that particular time of day? You look in the books, the internet, or talk to someone on the phone; have coffee in a farmhouse with a neighbor: facts begin to inform you. Slowly, drafting, inching your way pen-in-hand, the details you’re hovering over begin telling you just what it is you are writing about.
Even so, as a writer of creative nonfiction, I’m not going straight there. We are writing “around” our subjects and themes, says Martin Amis in paraphrase of Julian Barnes. And it seems so to me, too. So I’m thinking that I need a body, a wineskin, to hold the wine I’m expressing with my mythopoeic nonfiction scheme.
Annie Dillard in her book. Holy the Firm, told of walking the road, a bottle of wine in her backpack—hefting God on her back. She said she needed “another draft.” She stopped to jot something, planning her essay … something about experience, influences, the resolve of rewriting. During this process of interweaving research with the verbal account of my Maine experience, the words will accumulate their meaning as I write, as I rework them. Understanding is shedding itself over me, the task becoming lighter as I go. Through everything Dillard wears she feels the presence of that bottle on her back, the wine. She walks faster, weightless now, feeling the wine. It pours light through her rib cage into the “vault” of her being.
There is experience and the recounting of experience. There is the knowledge of others added into this experience. And there is the writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. And still there is the anticipation of the uncorking, of finding out whether or not these words, this design, will live.
(“The metaphor,” say my notes, “…the design’s life may be in the threefold communion of reader, metaphor and writer…?”) I’m sitting here in this corner I’ve written myself into, looking for a way out, fearing the cut and dried egress. This essay in your hands…. Should not it, at least, be rational, better than discursive? And this is what I’ve been afraid of (while writing and fearing dead work).
Should an inchworm persevere on the long green blade in order to tighten itself into its vessel of metamorphosis; persevere through to its delicate cabbage moth form—only to be pinned, chloroformed, to the wall? I need something living, but here is the corner, with its two walls. I’ll have to admit that this essay is failing, that I am unable “to describe this fantastic subtlety and how it comes about—the focus of my paper.” I have written it into this potential essay’s description myself: “My nonfiction creative works accumulate an imbedded element of fantasy which surfaces in my work in a more subtle manner.” But I cannot desiccate and dissect to “find out” something alive and kicking.
So, is there anything, really, here?
I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified. It’s not in the mere narrative arrangement of good and bad that morality makes itself felt. It can be there in every sentence. For Amis’s father, Kingsley, euphony prolonged became euphemism ” flimflam.” A writer in my position is grateful for the defense that his son makes. For that writer cares deeply for the sound of the written word, understands its integrality to the whole verbal yet necessarily aural design. Surely that sound is part of the metaphor, surely that metaphor is part of the mythopoeia.
Bearing in mind our conclusion that pleasure in diction depends on the difference between two levels of consciousness, we can indeed see why language, at an early stage, should delight us. But what follows? Owen Barfield in his book, Poetic Diction, wrote that it was the simultaneous, experienced difference between planes of consciousness making language a delight. (Barfield 69). Thus, the rational is a must for appreciation. Some of what he is after in his work is the rational, even analytic, “split” which occurred in the language when the old poets were gone. Barfield says that gods are surfacing in the language of Homer, not so much as persons but as “springs of action.” We live the poetry but do not feel it as such. One must get outside its experience, with the pen, to feel its poetry. The poets, he tells us, are unaware of their poetry as they experience it. This mythopoeia is what makes language sublime. We can see this if we circle back to reread Martin Amis’s quote at the beginning of this paper. Given this, it’s not a stretch to feel that an individual’s Judgment Day may be more like an epic recitation than a court of law.
Surely, I said above, sound is part of the metaphor, surely metaphor is part of the mythopoeia.
It was dark, but I wanted to find the limestone bedding mentioned in Kendall. We drove back and forth on the highway, looking for landmarks. There. Just down the drive from the rest area. A dark road cut, marbled with faintly gleaming white. Alien braked and turned off the engine. I opened the door, flashlight in hand. Straddling the gully I reached out and broke off a piece of limestone. Looked at it in the yellow beam. A coating of white upon gritty brown; reminding me of the thin white glazing of a cake; calcite deposits—calcium carbonate long ago effervescent through fissures and now solidified in veins. The rock split apart, brittle along cleavages, wet in my hand.
I held Aroostook County in my hand. This was the weathered rock, eroding toward soil—the fertile Caribou loam, producer of potatoes and broccoli and buckwheat and other. When we eat potatoes we eat minerals that are transmuted from rock. Rock is the bone-building material of the world. It provides the framework or structure whereby we stand. It’s crushed, dismantled, dissolved and finally absorbed by rootlets. Detritus feeds us and quickens these bodies, this hand holding a sample of Aroostook.
Limestone, thou art bread of life, laid down of sediments: the shell and carapace, broken houses of sea creatures, eventually crushed by weight of the sea. Limestone in the lowest (abyssal plains). Limestone in the highest (roof of the world, Everest). You, a generous giver, are wounded to particles, savaged by elements and fed to us as broccoli. There may be no place on this planet that you have not been. And always you leave behind food. Food of geological ages, moldering millennia: your name being limestone, faithful and true.
It was God in my hand, in that string of paragraphs, from Maine Metaphor, immediately above. And Annie Dillard had God in a wine bottle in the pack on her back,
God sloshing up and down in her ribcage. But for all that, it can be argued that I have failed; am unable here to articulate the hidden mythopoeic design.
“What!?” End of world, no further?
So I am an inchworm. But I can’t complain: They are green—alive and questing—like the bright blade itself, struggling toward the light.
© S. Dorman
Dorman has lived in Maine and studied its ways for thirty-five years. Maine Metaphor: The Green and Blue House is her first book in the series of Maine creative nonfiction, put out by Wipf& Stock. This essay is used by permission of W&S. Review copies may be requested at the publisher’s website.
Works Cited or Consulted:
Amis, Martin. Experience: A Memoir. New York: Vintage International, 2001.
Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study In Meaning, ed. Howard Nemerov. Hanover, New Hampshire: UP of New England, 1984.
Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Dillard. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, The Writing Life. 1974,1987,1989. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1990.
Dorman, S.. Visiting the Eastern Uplands: Maine Metaphor. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016.
Lewis, C.S.. “Meditation in a Toolshed.” God in the Dock. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970.