Coming off Lauren Slater’s “Lying” I feel like an overly permissive parent when it comes to “About A Mountain”, I feel stable in John D’Agata’s hands, while in Slater’s I was never really sure where I stood. He admits “Although the narrative of this essay, suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span between my arrival in Las Vegas and my final departure was, in fact, much longer. I have conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only, but I have tried to indicate each instance of this below. At times, I have also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single composite character.” I feel secure in his intent to manipulate solely for the sake of “dramatic effect”, because that effect increased my enjoyment of a topic that many people often have no interest in. It must be noted that Lauren Slater and D’Agata are two different people, I feel as if nature and his section of notes makes him a reliable narrator. I do not feel as if someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes with a sort of game of two truths and a lie. I have no reason to doubt his authorial intent. It’s different, his ability to tell the truth in a psychological way is not put into question.
The problem with Lauren Slater is that she is conveying truth as she sees fit. This truth is complicated, considering that she has factors that allow her to come to a differing conclusion about her truths and ours. Her full acknowledgement and hints gives me a bit of leeway in wanting off the bat to have her memoir classified as CNF/Memoir. Isn’t the lens of Munchausen/Epilepsy a way of conveying truths creatively? Or am I just falling into the trap of appreciating Slater’s “auras that give [her] things? When truth goes through the machine that is Slater’s mind, is the end product so completely warped that it must be considered fiction to everyone outside of her bubble?
In my experience with creative non-fiction I’ve come across many techniques for delivery of information. What I think Ross McElwee has used is a sort of braided essay, albeit with some stray threads (ahem, Burt Reynolds). In Sherman’s March we originally start with Civil War Sherman and his rampage to the sea, but then we get slightly distracted when Ross is broken up with by his girlfriend for another man. It is then that McElwee begins his own sort of march through past relationships, new relationships, and possibly what’s wrong with his own inability to couple happily. We also gain such interiority from McElwee that is not usually seen in a normal documentary, he is unafraid to turn the camera on himself and be intimate with his audience, which I think is just another characteristic of creative non-fiction. Just on a side note, it seems so funny that McElwee builds himself on a man that is solely known for the destruction of his home region. Although, McElwee acknowledges that Sherman liked the South regardless, even had friends in Charlotte–so he does provide a certain complexity.
You found a way to draw a line,
between the world and you:
Faking your identity.
-Five Iron Frenzy, Handbook for the Sellout
In her text Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion arranges a multitude of profiles, which discuss the life and times of various figures, generally in-or-around California. When Didion writes her profiles, she takes care to go in depth; she researches her topics, conducts interviews, and makes sure to record events as accurately as she can. However, due to the thoroughness of this project, some secrets must be shed.
In this way, yes, Didion is selling out her subjects. She is revealing matters that have been hidden up to now, usually without the prior knowledge of her subjects. Didion credits her ability to discover these secrets to her stature and temperament, and the ways in which these factors separate her from the connotations her occupation carries. In other words, Didion has deliberately taken advantage of her personality to “draw a line between the world and [her].” To her subjects, she is a non-entity–and it is that which makes her literary prowess so dangerous.
Of course, not all creative non-fiction writers can necessarily pull this off. To properly sell someone out requires subtlety and patience; things that Didion carries in droves. The process of selling out comes from the author and the profile format, not the creative non-fiction genre itself.