Originally published in Brevity, May 5, 2011.
Here’s a story about one of those times that made all the difference: I was in the middle of getting my MFA in a low-residency program—also, I should add, in the throes of despair about my work—and I went to a reading at a gallery in Santa Monica. At some point in the evening I found myself standing in front of a painting, and beside me was one of my mentors, a fine writer named Jim Krusoe. “How’s the writing?” Jim asked. Come to find out, talking in a gallery is a little like talking in a car; something about not having to look a person in the eye (and this is maybe a bit like writing, too) makes all kinds of confession possible. And so, when Jim asked, “How’s the writing?” I was honest with him. “What writing? Fuck writing,” I said. “I’m never writing anything again.” Then Jim asked, “What question are you trying to answer?”
Thanks to Jim, since that time, when I’m down and out about the work, I’m liable to ask myself: What question are you trying to answer? It’s not that I necessarily come up with any single question. As for answers, my hunch is that the answers are beside the point: It’s looking for answers—it’s not knowing and wanting to know—that’s what’s interesting, that’s the truth of the human condition, and, as a reader and a writer, that’s what I’m after on the page.
So, as Susan Sontag is Against Interpretation, and Phillip Lopate is Against Joie de Vivre, and Laura Kipnis is Against Love, I’m against knowing.
But should a nonfiction narrator admit what she doesn’t know? Does ignorance discredit her? I’d say, actually, it’s the other way around: The nonfiction narrator only has to confess that she doesn’t know and can’t know and will possibly never know; she only has to admit that she’s uncertain—and bingo, she’s credible. Who isn’t uncertain? Who doesn’t doubt? And who’s suspect, after all? A know-it-all, that’s who. Whereas when a nonfiction writer uses words and phrases like maybe and perhaps, and could be and it might have been, and if only I knew and I guess I’ll never know, we’re bound to embrace her; she’s just like us.
But if not-knowing is a ploy—a strategy to win the reader over—it’s also a direct line to a deeper, better kind of knowing, dependent on the facts of our experience to be sure, but having to do with how we’ve integrated that experience and what it means. To know—and to present what we know as if it’s all we need to know—is deadening, really; to not-know, on the other hand, is to give the writer a reason, a sense of urgency, and the writing itself a pulse.
How to explain what I mean without being self-referential? Well, I can’t. I wouldn’t presume. All I can do is tell you how it is for me. I have a letter. Delivered to me in a courthouse in New Jersey in 1998, after my father’s killers were sentenced. Written by one of them—not a murderer, this kid, he was only the driver; only the one who waited by the side of the road; he only took his share of the money and decided not to tell the police what he knew, that’s all. He was 18 years old at the time, full of terror and remorse, and he wrote me an apology, a plea for understanding and forgiveness.
Though I didn’t answer him (I’ll get to that), I kept the letter, of course. Several years later, when I realized I was writing a memoir, I was glad to find it stowed away in the back of my closet. That letter was gold and I knew it. I decided to use it (verbatim, naturally); to scan it, in fact, and include it as evidence. I knew, or I thought I knew, that the letter was essential to my book.
But among the things I didn’t know? A letter belongs to the sender and not the receiver. If you’re going to use a letter, you need permission from the person who wrote it. Even if he meant it for you, the letter belongs to him. If I wanted to use my letter—his letter—I’d have to find that boy locked away in a prison somewhere on the East Coast; except I didn’t want to be in touch with him and I wasn’t changing my mind. Was I frustrated when I learned I couldn’t use the letter without permission? Yes, of course. I felt robbed. The letter was stand-alone. It spoke for itself. Not just its syntax and grammar and consequent tone, but the look of it, too: the paper it was written on, the penmanship, everything. Really, without that letter to make my point . . . But what was my point?
Come to find out, the letter was an excuse—not conscious, no—but a reason not to write, not to think, not to face off with what I didn’t know. No choice but to put my ass in the chair and try to describe it. And in describing the letter, in examining what was actually there, I found myself making sense of it, contextualizing it in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I discovered something: some things. I made a connection I’d never have made, and then another, and another. Suddenly, I understood the situation and the story (to borrow from Vivian Gornick) in a way I wouldn’t have if not for writing. Writing as a strategy: Writing not just to find out what I know—or what I think, a la Patricia Hampl or Joan Didion—but writing as thinking, in real time; writing into knowing, and into more not-knowing, too. More questions, then, and more uncertainty, as I laid down one sentence after another, as I took the letter apart and put it together again like a jigsaw, only to discover it was more than evidence, more than words on paper; it had taken on unexpected depth and dimension.
Eudora Welty wrote, “Writing . . . is one way of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life . . . Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together . . . suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you’ve come, is rising there still . . .”
And in a conversation about craft, Ralph Ellison said, “There are things . . . that I can’t imagine having consciously planned. They materialized as I worked consciously at other things.”
And it was Robert Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” But I’m an actor, and a teacher of actors, and tears are suspect. Chances are good that if I’m crying, the audience is not: the audience is wincing, crossing its arms, checking its watch, unless . . . unless those tears are entirely authentic, a genuine and apparently unexpected response to the moment, to something the actor didn’t know, to something she discovered in playing the scene.
It turns out emotion isn’t something you can play; emotion is a result of going after what you want, or need—looking for answers and getting them, or not—having more to do with what you don’t know at the top of a scene than with what you do. Robert Frost was right, of course (c’mon, he was Robert Frost!). “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” But to clarify, and for our purposes, I’d say, “No discovery in the writer, no discovery in the reader.” From the start and all the way through—for the writer’s sake, for our readers’ sakes—there’s got to be something we don’t know.
And should we admit that? Absolutely. Over and over again. Which doesn’t mean the nonfiction writer isn’t obligated to do her research. But the research is the easy part. There’s gathering all those bits and pieces: letters, photos, interviews, records. There’s coaxing and corralling memory and fact. But then there’s dumping the lot on the table and making sense of it according to color or shape. Or maybe you’re one of those people who look first for the straight edges, as if to make a frame? Or perhaps, instead, you prefer to start in the middle and work your way out—an unusual but sometimes rewarding tack, no? One way or another, a picture begins to emerge; except you don’t start with that picture, you don’t know what the picture is, what it looks like—every inch of the why and the how are at least as important and revealing and urgent as the what, and therefore part and parcel of the story you’re trying to tell.
Last thought—neither caveat nor prescription—having to do with the idea of discovery. And that is just to insist that it has nothing to do with suspense as we usually think of it. In nonfiction anyway, not-knowing is not the same thing as withholding what we know, or what we don’t. We’re responsible for telling the truth about what happened, and we’re equally obliged to admit to doubt and bewilderment, to narrative vulnerability and ignorance. If there is suspense in this genre, it has to do, all over again, with form as much as content; with how we get where we’re going, and how we think and feel not just when we come to the end, but all along the way. That’s why I’m against knowing: If we knew that stuff before we began, it seems to me we wouldn’t have to write at all.
Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and Bigger than Life, and, with Judith Kitchen, edited Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W. W. Norton, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars as well as the Rainier Writing Workshop, and as a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.