I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker last night about the Ransom Collection at the University of Texas Library. It is, by the account of the author, the single biggest repository of the collected papers of fiction writers in United States and probably the world. It includes the papers of Don DeLillo, Normal Mailer and Ezra Pound, among thousands of others, many of them British (It was something of a big deal in British literary world when native archive materials began retiring in Texas). The author, D.T. Max, focuses helpfully on the extensive collection from DiLillo, a contemporary author who uses a typewriter, and who thus creates far more printed material than most writers. He uses the typewriter to create single paragraphs which he pencil-edits on the page, typing the “corrected” paragraph immediately below it. He sometimes repeats this process for four or five pages until the paragraph is, in his mind, ready. His entire thought process is recorded on sheets of 8 ½ by 11 inch paper.
Tom Staley, the director of Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, studies the minds of literary “masters” the way some people study law or, say, podiatry. The difference is that in law and podiatry, there is a right and a wrong answer to every question (insofar as he have mastered the study of foot medicine), whereas in literature the rules are created by each individual author. The study of literature is not one text compared to another; it is the study of each text itself. At some point, every book, newspaper or magazine you’ve read was a dead tree. To see literature as a science, and not as a form of entertainment, is to see how the human mind creates stories. Does the perfect story exist? In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel,” the central character, the librarian, is searching through the infinite space described by every possible letter combination in every book. There are books that vary from each other with only one keystroke, and books composed of nothing but gobbledygook. He searches because in the library, there is said to be one book that perfectly describes all the others. The study of how literature is created — the author’s search for the perfect story — is the search for that book, but with the prior knowledge of what’s in it. The book describes the search for the book itself. The study of literature is without end.
For this reason, the process of creating fiction differs decisively from the creation of non-fiction. As someone who has never had a fiction class, and has spent a life writing non-fiction, the immediate differences between the two processes are striking. (Or, at least, DeLillo’s process is far different than mine.) DeLillo first molds the sentence like “Look at the kid with the with the empty pockets”; it becomes “Look at the kid with the lively eyes,” then “glimmerglass eyes,” the “shine in the eyes”, then he completely changes its emphasis. “He speaks in your voice, American, and has a shine in the eyes that’s half hope, half fear” he writes, and “half hope, half fear” eventually becomes “halfway hopeful”. The process we are witnessing is his search for the perfect sentence, the sentence that will get his reader one step closer to Borges’ fictional perfect book.
This is the mystery of fiction. It’s unpredictable, dangerous and sexy. The danger in non-fiction has already passed, no matter how compelling the situation (Non-fiction on a life-threatening basis is ‘journalism’.). In non-fiction, every sentence is the author’s attempt to describe in something that happened in the right words; the process of creating a non-fiction document is the process of combining words with research and memory. In fiction, words describe both one’s imagination and one’s process. The study of non-fiction is similar to the study of law; it can be done correctly or incorrectly. Fiction certainly can be done poorly, but nothing is ever wrong. None of this is to be an assault on non-fiction. I read mostly non-fiction. When it comes to fiction, I’m picky. I only read novels that are recommended to me, or ones that garner such critical acclaim that they cannot be ignored (The Bonfire of the Vanities would be a great instance of these two lines intersecting). I’m learning when I read non-fiction. When I read fiction, I’m doing something else.
Which leads me, at last, to the third type of writing. The rules of fiction are not 100 percent different the rules of non-fiction; in both fiction and non-fiction, the writer is attempting to describe something external to the narrator. The world that is described has a place and time, be it real or imagined. Underworld or White Noise, though created in DeLillo’s head, occur in a place and time, just as Into Thin Air or Krakatoa, works of non-fiction, occur somewhere outside our brains. Fiction’s antonym is, instead, the personal essay. In the personal essay, noting is external to the narrator: it’s all about what happens in our heads. Fiction is the fruit of the writing process by way of imagination; the personal essay is the direct connection between the mind and the page. Stripped of outright lies about oneself, the personal essay is a perfect reflection of ones self-awareness .Your personal essay will only be as good as you can make it. Stripped of lies, it will be a perfect reflection of how well you are able to describe yourself and of how well you know yourself. If fiction is the search for the perfect book amongst a universe of imperfect ones, the personal essay is the fruit of constantly finding the perfect book to describe oneself. Once you find the book, it’s not perfect anymore. You’ve grown. Time to write again. I’m intrigued by fiction, with its incredible degree of difficulty and the enormous imaginative capacity involved, and in awe of non-fiction writers like Robert Caro, who have written works like The Power Broker, that are literally monuments to human work ethic and the printed word, but at the moment, I see no purer piece of writing than the personal essay. I’m not yet ready for fiction, the endless science, or non-fiction, its diligent cousin. I have too much to do here first.
Feel free to leave comments and editing suggestions. All help is appreciated.