What I Think About When I Think About Creative Non-Fiction
Michael P. Kramer
What a peculiar category. As if make-believe were the standard and real-life its negation, its aversion. As if we were all inveterate, compulsive, recalcitrant liars. As if telling the truth required Herculean creative efforts to overcome a powerful, innate tendency to prevaricate. As if, in the end, only a very few of us can truly be sooth-sayers.
Perhaps we should describe creative non-fiction as “the great Art of Telling the Truth.” That’s Herman Melville’s phrase. He believed that we live in a world of lies, a world in which “Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands.” We may from time to time catch glimpses of that doe. Ah, but master-writers can reveal the Truth to us, if only “covertly, and by snatches.”
A noble calling for the votaries of creative non-fiction. One problem. Melville had Shakespeare and Hawthorne in mind. The great literary soothsayers were in fact fiction writers. In a world of lies telling the truth entails making things up. A paradox worthy of the Greeks, or some of them. Plato would have called a lie a lie and have banished Melville from his republic. But Aristotle maintained that fictionists had access to a truth more general, and hence more true, than non-fictionists. In a world of lies, is non-fiction a fiction?
What does it mean that we live in a world of lies? Jewish mystics believe that God is the true reality and that the physical world we inhabit is His absence, or near-absence. Though sparks of God’s holiness can be found in our nether-world of delusive experience, they are hidden in husks of impurity. The Torah reveals God’s truth as well, but it too is veiled in obscurity. Just as folks are fooled into thinking that clothes make the man, the Zohar tells us, so the stories in the Torah are only its outer garments. Getting at the truth demands tremendous spiritual exertions. We must intellectually rend the garments of the Torah. We must husk the world.
That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another. When I was young I worked in an Orthodox Jewish summer camp in the Poconos. As the summer neared its august conclusion, the camp rabbi gathered the campers together for an inspirational talk. Soon they would be returning to the drudgery of their lives, to school and their families, to fall and winter. But he wanted them not to be fooled. Real life was the summer, when the routine was broken, when new friendships were formed, when song and dance and play constituted the core of existence, when religious observance was revealed to be fun, when God and Torah were your bunkmates. As the soul gives life to the body, as the child is father to the man, so the liminal truths of the summer must inform the mundane structures of our lives.
When I think of creative non-fiction I think of summer camp and holy sparks. The great Art of Telling the Truth begins with the perception that we live in a world of lies, a duping world of distractions that drain us of our diurnal energies, a stubborn world that refuses to give up its secrets without a fight. In a fictive world, routine must be disturbed, appearances must be shattered, garments must be rent, husks must be husked. Only then can fiction be negated. Only then can illusion be averted. Only then may truth be revealed.
Michael P. Kramer leads the William Solomon Jewish Arts Seminar in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. Besides his scholarly work on Jewish and American literature, he was the founding editor of MAGGID: A Journal of Jewish Literature and is a co-organizer of the bi-annual literary event, KISUFIM: The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers. He is currently completing an annotated translation of S.Y. Agnon’s And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight, forthcoming from Toby Press.