Writers on Writing #88: Alexis Paige
Remembering the Cockroaches: On Doubt in Creative Nonfiction
When I tell people I write creative nonfiction, I take a deep breath and wait—depending on the company, the response usually ranges somewhere between confusion and derision. Among other writers, real writers like poets and novelists, the thrust might be patronizing. One common point is that CNF writers have it easy; after all, we simply have to write what happened—as if the events of our lives come stapled to perfect narrative arcs.
“Lucky!” a fiction writer once said when I told her I was writing a memoir about spending 60 days in a Texas jail. “You’ll probably get a six-figure advance and appear on Oprah!” Funny, that’s exactly what I was thinking during the grueling months I spent in the third-largest jail in America, stockpiling tampons under my bunk and pooping in front of 50-odd strangers, including male guards. “Wow, I’ve really hit the jackpot here.”
Among non-writers, the conversation might drift toward their great-grandpappy’s second cousin’s million-dollar story, or toward a celebrity’s recent “memoirs” plural—the memoirs of Snooki, the Kardashians, or James Fucking Franco.
So if creative nonfiction writers seem a little prickly, we are. I often feel compelled to offer a mission statement peppered with negations, like the one Lloyd Dobler asserts in Say Anything: “I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” Like Dobler, I will list all of the writing I don’t want to do: I don’t want to write bald confesssionalism tantamount to ugly crying in public; I don’t want to go “undercover” as a “cougar” and write about the dating scene for 40-something divorcees; I don’t want to write a how-to book on pixie haircuts or pap smears. And lastly, no, I don’t want to ghost write your great-grandpappy’s second cousin’s story.
The thing is, without the negations, what I do write sounds inadequate. I’m just writing about my life, I might say, and then the stranger will eyeball me for signs of extreme trauma or maiming. I can hear the accusation in their appraisal: what makes you so interesting? Nothing, I will think, and then tell them what they want to hear: “See, I was raised by mole people in New York City, where I ate crack-fried cockroaches, and my best friend was a subway rat called Electra who eventually ate my mother.” “Oh, how interesting,” the stranger might say, then, “Have you read Snooki’s new memoirs?”
Our genre is shaped by negation: its very name, “Nonfiction,” doesn’t assert what it is, but rather what it is not. We are not fiction, or as my friend and fellow writer Penny Guisinger has said, what we write is not, not true. I, for one, have lobbied to change our genre name to Nonpoetry, but as you can see, that didn’t take. So I say we embrace the negations, but call them something else, something like litotes—because practically no one but the odd literature professor knows what that word means.
And there are other reasons to embrace the negations. Regarding truth, I want to make a case not for certainty, but for doubt. “Authenticity in literature does not come from a writer’s personal honesty,” John Berger writes. “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” That thing we call the truth is, after all, a slippery affair—both emotionally and cognitively—and writers would do well to heed the humilities doubt can offer up.
Take, for example, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus’s work in cognitive psychology, which revealed that phenomena such as false memories and eyewitness misidentification are more common than conventional wisdom suggests. In fact, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide and has played a role in 72% of convictions overturned by DNA evidence. In one example, Charles Chatman, a black man, was wrongfully convicted of the 1981 rape of a white woman based on her adamant testimony. Chatman spent 27 years in prison before DNA cleared him. "The most horrifying idea,” Loftus has said, “is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.” For writers whose stock and trade is our own and others’ memories, this is a sobering thought.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying facts don’t matter or that the truth is too abstract a thing to reach for. We should reach for it. But we might also regard capital-T truth as a kind of chimera of memory, sensorial detritus, and intention. If we are honest about our lives, we and they are full of uncertainty. Often, memory is not what actually or empirically happened, but the story we tell ourselves of what happened. Or what could have happened. (Or perhaps, if we have revisionist impulses, what should have happened.) So doubt is good—it keeps us on the edge, it keeps us accountable.
Ultimately, I also make the case for doubt as an in-road to empathy. While mentoring young actors, playwright, performer, and professor Anna Deveare Smith talks about how the most important work of the actor is to become vulnerable enough to make what she calls “the broad jump to the other.” “Confidence is overrated,” she admonishes her students. “Give doubt a try.”
As I think about it now, I am beginning to doubt my own narrative. Maybe I was lucky to spend time in jail. Maybe I was raised by mole people, and it’s the cockroaches I’ve misremembered.
Maybe none of it matters.
Maybe all of it does.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast Creative Writing program. She lives and teaches in central Vermont. Visit her at alexispaigewrites.com.