Facting the Invisible in Nonfiction

The anthology Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis, has just been published, and because I have an entry in the book I received an advance copy. Paging through it, I was delighted to see that Jenny Boully was among the other writers represented.

I’m a great admirer of Boully’s work, particularly how she structures her books. The Body is a book-length essay without the essay: all you get on each page are the footnotes, which is an eerie experience, like hearing an echo but not the initiating voice. Her The Book of Beginnings and Endings is, well, just that: a collection of the first and last chapters of books she’s invented. Once again, negative space eloquently reigns.

My favorite Boully book, though, is [one love affair]*. The titles of each short chapter are phrases from books, it soon becomes clear, that the author is reading. For instance, the chapter title ” . . . where sad, incomprehensible scenes were played over and over” is a quote from Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, and the text of Boully’s chapter takes the form of thoughts or remembered scenes that she then calls up in response to that phrase. Eventually, the various phrases of the titles engender the reflective narrative movement of the book. And what reader hasn’t stopped mid-page in a book, inspired by a turn of language, and gone off on a brief reverie before returning to the tug of that book’s forward motion?

Boully’s entry in Ellis’s nonfiction anthology is “Breaking from ‘Fact’ in Essay Writing.” It doesn’t start well, by my lights, with a seeming defense of the notorious James Frey’s silly puttying various points of his biography. My problem with Frey is not his manipulation of those details but that he knowingly misrepresented himself; he played the role of a fraud, and that role then played itself out on a public stage.

Anyway, Boully soon gets down to serious business, challenging the notion that essayists must avoid invention and instead stick to an implied stricture of Who What When Where Why. “Dream-life, daydreaming-life, and the imagined-life can sometimes be experienced so profoundly that they feel real to us,” she says, in a sentence that’s as spot-on a sentence as any I’ve recently read.

I say they are real, if we think them, because, though fictions, they are what we build our lives upon. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be surrounded by people who are not concentrating on the very important mechanics of walking, but are instead having conversations in their minds with people who aren’t present: revising a fraught conversation with a spouse from earlier that morning, anticipating an encounter with a friend later in the day, or arguing, yet again, with a deceased parent. Or those fellow travelers might be sculpting possible strategies for managing a child’s adolescent rage, or plotting out a hoped-for vacation, or digging into the details of an alternate, imagined life. So many thought bubbles, like storm clouds, hover above us.


Yet even what we acknowledge are facts have suspect borders. The “facts” of someone else’s personality–all the years of that person’s living and secret thoughts and desires–are great guesses on our part, hunches that the little we are able to see reflects the much more that we can’t. What passes for understanding of another is closer to the invention of a fictional character than we’d like to admit. As for memory, picking a fact from the past is like choosing a mirror from a hall full of them.

The world is infinite, our view is limited. Of necessity we invent and imagine–it’s the fact of our lives. Or should I say, our personal fictions are part of our nonfiction selves.

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    1. […] Philip Graham offers up a thoughtful post on our imagined lives and how they might become part of our nonfiction, by looking at the work of Jenny Boully and the writing exercise Boully contributed to the new book of nonfiction exercises, Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis.  Here is an excerpt, or you can jump to the entire blog post here: […]

    2. Kyle Minor says:

      Good post, Philip!

    3. I’ve often told my students that what they dream or day-dream or imagine reveals their true characters, their true desires. Stephen Kuusisto, author of Planet of the Blind, said once that daydreams are often about being rescued. That has stuck with me for the longest time.

    4. The comparison of choosing a fact from the past to choosing a mirror from a hall full of them is a wonderful image! I’ve long thought of memories as my internal box of slides – sometimes I have to squint and say, “what is that?” Memory and truth are malleable.

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