Nearly Three Miles of Invention

In a recent post I wrote about the thought bubbles of our private selves, the stories we generate as we go about our lives, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Those thought bubbles continually rise and fall within us, but what are the geographical perimeters of that “within”?

I remember seeing a television special years ago, hosted by the science writer Timothy Ferris. In that special, he tried to demonstrate how long it took for life to develop on earth. He did this by driving a racing car across 4.5 kilometers (nearly three miles) of the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, a desolate place that seems to go on forever.

Bonneville Salt Flats

His starting point was a line representing the formation of our planet, 4.5 billion years ago, and then he drove for three kilometers until he came to a line representing the origins of single-celled life, bacteria and algae, about 1.5 billion years ago. From there he drove for a kilometer until he came to the line for the beginnings of multicellular life, in the Cambrian era, a half billion years ago. He then raced on for another half a kilometer past the rise of reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals.

Finally he stopped the car and walked the last few yards (let’s dispense with the metric system for the clincher, okay?), which corresponded to the origin of our earliest human ancestors. A half a yard from the very end marked the first appearance of Homo sapiens, and much less than an inch from the finish line, the narrowest sliver of highway represented all of human recorded history.

Now why not transpose the little sliver that Ferris calls human recorded history and call it instead the tiny portion of us that is available to others in any daily face-to-face contact. That sliver is the present moment, and behind it, equivalent to the long drive across the Salt Flats, are all the years of your experience and the multitude of your thoughts and all the stories of your life. So much of us remains hidden, inaccessible. That’s why humans invented language, why we invented storytelling.

So whenever you’re about to fashion a short story or an essay out of someone in your life, remember, fiction writers—and take caution, nonfiction writers—that any person’s mystery offers you nearly three miles of invention.

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January 21st, 2010 by admin

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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December 21st, 2009 by admin