Julie Marie Wade
Julie Marie Wade

The Storyteller as Cartographer: Navigating the Fiction/Nonfiction Divide

That’s all that can be said for plots, which are just one thing after another,
a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.

—Margaret Atwood, from “Happy Endings”

For most of my writing life, whether consciously or not, I have been trying to follow Margaret Atwood’s directive. I want to tell stories—some about myself, some about others, some told to me by others that turned out to be about myself as well—but without making the “whatness” or “aboutness” of the story primary. It is hard enough to explain “what happened,” in life or in art that attempts to mirror life, but it is harder still to postulate how anything happened, or why.

The formalist in me is also engaged intellectually by the challenging dictum, “Form equals content.” Does it? Form and content seem to be deeply intertwined with each other. Are they hopelessly co-dependent, secretly hierarchical, or admirably symbiotic? Perhaps they are none of these, or part and parcel of each. For me, all writing is inquiry driven, necessarily investigative, an always-in-progress drafted response to Forster’s remark, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Joyce Carol Oates is quoted as asking, in the preface to a short story of hers I teach, “How else can we say the unsayable except through the prism of technique?” Here, the “unsayable” is the “what”—the plot, the content, the story. The “prism of technique” is the form. Oates seems to suggest that, if there is indeed a hierarchy, form takes precedent over content. If the two were dancing partners, form would take the lead.

As an undergraduate, majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing, I took several intensive seminars with the writer-in-residence at my small, private, liberal arts university. Earl Lovelace spent half a year with us in rainy Tacoma, Washington, the other half in his native Trinidad where he enjoyed the sun and the unparalleled celebrity of being “Trinidad’s Man of the Year” (in perpetuity, it seemed) and also of having received the Commonwealth Prize in Literature, which was awarded to him in person by the Queen of England.

The question Earl always asked whenever a student finished reading her work was a perennially unsettling one. It required an immediate response but, also—perhaps—contemplation for a lifetime. “Where is the story?” he demanded to know, then leaned back in his chair, opened his flask, poured rum into his coffee, and waited for someone brave enough to reply.

I think all of these questions and statements (which may simply be questions in disguise) are members of the same club, a club that separates its members by genres (like locker rooms) but still sends them out, once suited up, to play sport in the same story-field. They are all, in a sense, pointing toward the master question raised by Earl Lovelace time and again in those crowded, quiet classrooms at the close of the twentieth century. Where does the story—any story—come from? Where does the need arise for its telling? Where does the story travel, and where does the story stop?

“Where” is a word that encompasses “what,” “how,” and “why.” If we can identify where—that is, if we can find the story and retrace its path (whether straightforward or zigzagged, journalistic or speculative) to the point of its origin, then we can begin to say something about how it is, or becomes, what it is, and why. For the record, I am especially interested in stories whose point of origin is an impulse toward the autobiographical.

Not long ago, I came across an article in an old issue of The Sewanee Review (1995) by V.S. Pritchett titled simply “Autobiography.” There was no choice but to put down everything I was working on and read this essay on the spot. Pritchett begins, “Anyone who has attempted an autobiography, as I have done, must have felt, after a few pages, a horror of the everlasting appearance of the word I” (15). So far the experience Pritchett described wasn’t ringing true for me, but he continued: “One can say (as a gamble) ‘I see, I hear,’ even ‘I think,’ but it is with a shudder of doubt that one says ‘I am’ or 'I was.’ There lies the autobiographer’s nightmare” (15). Then I understood. The presumed fixity or stability of the self suggested by a statement like “I am” (now) or “I was” (then) seems implicitly to preclude the possibility that one is and was so many other things—other selves—simultaneously or in succession. The autobiographer’s nightmare is to have to choose a story and stick with it, one of myriad possible versions of self to whom one pledges fidelity for the purposes of this particular first-person enterprise.

So is the autobiographer’s nightmare actually the fiction writer’s dream? Pritchett suggests that the autobiographer labors to present a coherent account of the self, even quoting Montaigne’s famous preface to his Essais (1580), “It is myself I portray”—notably, he does not say “my selves.” Fiction writers, we might suppose, are laboring under a different (more liberating?) imperative. Are they creating selves while nonfiction writers are revealing them?

Perhaps Pritchett here, as autobiographer, is enacting a literary version of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the genre.” Who’s to say unreliable narrators are any less tolerable—or any less desirable—in nonfiction than they are in fiction? Pritchett cites Sterne’s remark in Tristram Shandy (1759): “There is not a more perplexing affair in life to me than to set about telling anyone who I am” (15).¹ It is a “perplexing affair” to endeavor to explain who anyone is, not because of the particular demands of autobiography, but because of the nature of identity itself, which I would claim is inherently unstable, context dependent, and contradictory. If we are all playing in the same story-field, then I am inclined to say that everyone is a character on the page—or a player with a jersey and a number, a racquet or a crosse—and that every character, whether classified as “N” or “F,” is in fact more created than revealed.

One of the best examples I have found of a text that explores the “createdness” of self (or selves)—(their) perpetual "under construction" quality, whether in life or in art—is Dorothy Allison’s memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995). Best known as a fiction writer, Allison brings explicit attention to the “prism of technique” that undergirds storytelling in general, whether autobiographical or not. She tells her readers that she wants to tell us a story, that this is what she does and has always done as a way of making sense of the world. Just as Pritchett quivers before the totalizing power of “I am” or “I was,” Allison and I quake at the dreaded certainty of “I know.” Think how much easier it is to say “I wonder.” Think how much easier it is to admit “I don’t know.” This is why the aunt who gives her the phrase “two or three things I know for sure” also qualifies the statement, “Of course it’s never the same things, and I’m never as sure as I’d like to be” (5).

Here’s where Allison takes me back to those first writing workshops with Earl Lovelace, riddling and rum-soused, twisting the ends of his mustache and murmuring, “Where is the story?” Allison points to the creation/construction of self that any autobiographer must inevitably confront: “When I began there was only the suspicion that making up the story as you went along was the way to survive. And if I know anything”—notice that she isn’t willing to claim she does—“I know how to survive, how to remake the world in story” (4). It is the same story-field, and we are mowing the grass the same way, perhaps, even as we call this way of trimming “fiction” and that way of trimming “non-.” We are all remaking—or trying to remake—the world in story.

In the next paragraph, though, Allison turns her gaze to the particular autobiographical subject, the question any nonfiction writer must ask: “Where am I in the stories I tell? Not the storyteller but the woman in the story, the woman who believes in story. What is the truth about her?” (4). Notice how she does not ask, “What is the truth about me?” The “woman in the story,” one or many versions of herself, becomes third-person here. The storyteller retains the “I,” but the story of the self is still a story, so the woman in the story becomes a “she.” Like any other character, she must sit apart from the self (selves) on the page, performing a contemporary literary enactment of the ancient Greek concept of ekstasis. ²

The practitioner of fiction may never have to ask the question “Where am I in the stories I tell?” She may not be (consciously) present in her characters at all. However, this storyteller, no less than the autobiographical storyteller, will not be able to transcend the question of location altogether. She will still have to ask “Where is the story?” She will still have to consider the truth(s) of her characters, where they enter and exit the story, where their lives intersect and overlap, where they lose and find themselves or parts of themselves, and where they split up, break down, and go their separate ways.

Perhaps Earl Lovelace was not trying to be philosophical at all when he asked us, his writing students, to find the story. Perhaps he was being practical, insisting that we must be able to map the stories we write, regardless of what (or whom) they are “about”—that to be a successful storyteller is also to be a cartographer of the many alternative routes (“versions”) in and through the story itself.

I have been musing lately that the self as represented in a story may be no different than the self as represented in a photograph. We can say, “Hey, look, that’s me!” but in a snapshot, no one takes such a comment literally. It is a likeness of you, someone who can be recognized and identified, but there is no actual confusion, let alone conflation, between the image on the glossy print and the person standing beside the frame, pointing. Stories also have a frame. They are constructed. They involve navigation of particular (autobiographical and/or non-autobiographical) terrain. Whether the navigation is straightforward or zigzagged, whether the compass is realistically/chronologically oriented (journalistic) or imaginatively/subjunctively oriented (speculative), to map a story is to examine the many ways characters and readers alike can, and do, travel in order to arrive at the same place.

Maps are also about marking boundaries. The storyteller cannot cover all possible ground, so she must know/decide which paths to follow and which stones to leave unturned. Allison models the storyteller’s selection process by assessing the topography of her personal landscape: “What is the story I will not tell?” (71), she asks. Then, she stops to muse on the many parts of self—the many tangled paths—available to her in any storytelling endeavor: “Yes, somewhere inside me there is a child always eleven years old, a girlchild who holds the world responsible for all the things that terrify and call to me” (71). Does she want to locate the story here? Does she want to speak/navigate from the perspective of this eleven-year-old “girlchild”? Allison continues: “But inside me too is the teenager who armed herself and fought back, the dyke who did what she had to, the woman who learned to love without giving in to fear” (71). These are three more selves, separate from, but also imbricated with, each other, who likewise vie to play tour guide through this topography of present (“I am”) and past (“I was”).

Allison makes a case then for why, this time, she has chosen autobiography: “The stories other people would tell about my life, my mother’s life, my sisters’, uncles’, cousins’, and lost girlfriends’—those are the stories that could destroy me, erase me, mock and deny me” (71). She insists that the story she wants to tell can be told best by she, herself (or selves): “I tell my stories louder all the time: mean and ugly stories; funny, almost bitter stories; passionate, desperate stories”—all different paths through the same terrain. “All of them have to be told in order not to tell the one the world wants, the story of us broken, the story of us never laughing out loud, never learning to enjoy sex, never being able to love or trust love again, the story in which all that survives is the flesh” (72).

This is the first reference to audience. Allison is aware that storytellers are cartographers who put maps into readers’/listeners’ hands. The audience also has desires and fantasies about both the journey and the destination. In fiction or nonfiction, or genre-crossing art, the reader always comes to the map of the page with expectations. Most broadly, readers want a vicarious experience—to travel without leaving their chairs. Allison’s discourse here, speaking as an autobiographical storyteller, implies that readers' expectations change—intensify—under the banner of autobiography. The desire for vicarious experience can easily be amplified to voyeurism. The reader is now not just a traveler, but also an eavesdropper and a spy.

When she refuses to tell the story “the world wants,” Allison acknowledges that readers and writers may not agree about the path chosen to be traveled in a story. The enticement of autobiography as both vicarious and voyeuristic experience for the reader is complicated further when the subject of the autobiography locates herself in marginalized spaces. Allison does not hitch rides on main roads. She is a woman in a man’s world, a lesbian in a heterosexual world, a poor Southern woman of “white trash” roots in a world that imagines itself unfailingly middle class and upwardly mobile. She is also an incest survivor, which intensifies the cultural voyeurism toward “true stories” by “other Others” to the zenith of sensationalism and morbid fascination, as well as the real potential for reader disgust, contempt, and condemnation. To resist being tokenized, to resist her personhood being conflated with the stories she tells, to resist—as she says in an earlier passage—being defined as her “rapist’s creation” (71), Allison announces that “the story of us broken”—the “us” referring broadly to women, to lesbians, to poor white trash, to incest survivors, to anyone who has been made to be, or feel like, a “victim”—is not the story she will tell. “That is not my story,” she says, meaning the story of victimhood and sensationalized horror. “I tell all the others so as not to have to tell that one” (72).

One of the things I know for sure is that there is no unproblematic way to tell a story. Fiction and nonfiction alike require the selection and creation of pathways through a dense landscape. Whether this landscape bears resemblance to the landscape of one’s own life is not the most important question the reader or the writer can ask. Knowing why you are writing it, or knowing fully who you are as you are writing it, may not be important either. What Pritchett doesn’t probe far enough but what Allison admirably explores is the separation between the “I” on the page and the “I” in the mind, the character and the storyteller, who must always be, regardless of genre, separate people, even if they are separate people who bear resemblance to one another, whose identities overlap.

I think of the poignant moment in the film version of Wonder Boys (2000) when Grady Tripp loses his entire manuscript—more than 2300 pages blown away from a careening car’s window. Vernon, Grady’s quasi-nemesis, asks him what the book was about, and Grady can’t explain it. His editor tries to cover, saying, “It’s hard to distill the essence of a book because it lives in the mind.” But Vernon isn’t buying it. “If you didn’t know what it was about,” he asks, “why were you writing it?” I’ve always thought Grady’s answer, while honest enough, was also incomplete: “I couldn’t stop,” he replies. Of course he could have stopped, and in the unfolding of this story about that story he was forced to stop when “the Monongahela swallowed [his] never-ending opus,” he does stop. But I would like to suggest that Grady Tripp was writing, as so many of us are, to discover why he was writing—to see what he was going to say. Like a golfer stranded in the sand trap, he was striking at the story, hoping to hit his way back to the green.


¹ Interestingly, Tristram Shandy is often referred to as the first modern novel, yet it is in practice a fictional autobiography of “the life and opinions” of its protagonist, bringing the generic conventions of fiction and nonfiction together in one text.

² “Ekstasis,” from which our more contemporary “ecstasy” derives, was the concept of “standing outside oneself” and being able, as a result, to perceive oneself with heightened clarity. Although initially connected with religious experience, and now more broadly with secular experiences like sex and the use of psychotropic drugs, I think the nonfiction writer who is able to separate the storytelling self from the self in the story (i.e. “the character of the self”) is also practicing a version of ekstasis.


Works Cited

Allison, Dorothy. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. New York: Plume Books, 1995. Print.

Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” (1983). http://users.ipfw.edu/ruflethe/endings.htm. Last accessed 4/21/2010. Web.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Introduction to “Heat.” Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Joyce Carol Oates, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 607. Print.

Pritchett, V.S. “Autobiography.” Sewanee Review. Volume 103. Issue 1 (1995): 15-26. Print.

"Wonder Boys." Dir: Curtis Hanson. Perf: Michael Douglas, Toby Maguire. USA Films, 2000.