I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m trying to write nonfiction.
I have published some fiction, so I think of myself as a fiction writer. I have published some poetry, so sometimes I think of myself as a poet. I have published a few essays, but I have never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.
I’m not a nonfiction writer. In fact, I don’t even believe nonfiction can exist. All writing is fiction by virtue of the fact that words can never be equal to lived experience; I can say I’m writing truth, but all I’m doing is constructing a mirror of the truth, a mirror of lived experience, using words as symbols to do my best to communicate what the truth is.
Ferdinand de Saussure is famous for saying there are two things in all communication: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is arbitrary; there’s no inherent reason to refer to a dog as a “dog,” except that, as English speakers, we have agreed on this word to signify the animal we think of as a dog.
But the word “dog” will never be an actual dog. Words will always be words; words can never be truth.
I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog.
I’m here, in Philadelphia, because I’m working on a PhD in English at Temple University. I want to study Rhetoric and Poetics and Creative Writing pedagogy and identity and race and literature and anything that has to do with words, really, and how they can connect to our lived experiences. This is why I’m here.
I have an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I was getting my MFA, there were creative nonfiction writers in the program, but they were separate from me. They were people who had led interesting lives, done interesting things, grown enough that they could offer some perspective on reality that I couldn’t. I was only a kid, 25 years old, from a small town in Arkansas; I’d barely traveled anywhere, hadn’t seen much of anything; what could I add to the already abundant world of nonfiction?
I was a kid. In many ways, I’m still a kid, trapped in the extended adolescence of the post-irony, post-sincerity millennial era; I came of age in America under the Bush Administration, a world where words, masquerading as truths, became tools for war. Fictions posing as nonfictions created disaster. Why would I even want to pretend to be able to tell the truth?
I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m looking in a mirror.
This is the story I’m telling about myself, and for the most part, it’s true. That is: it’s easy to believe that there’s a place called Philadelphia, and I am in it, along with my couch and my dog. I say these things; you think these things; therefore, they are.
Brian Street has said before that sometimes we form identities in our narratives: we tell stories about ourselves, and in doing so, we figure out who we are. By creating a fiction, we create ourselves.
That isn’t true, of course. I mean, not truly true—we can’t be the actual fictions we make out of ourselves; we will be ourselves, and the words will be the words. In writing, I play a character in a story: I am in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog; in reality, I’m much more than that.
I’ve been reading a lot about identity lately, mainly because I’m trying to figure out who I am. It seems strange to be me, in the literal, physical sense, and yet to not really know what it actually means to be me. What does it mean to be here? What does it mean to be a fiction writer? What does it mean to never want to tell the truth?
I used to be mad whenever anyone would read one of my stories and critique it as though I was the main character. That still isn’t a critique I would support, but certainly, a character is a part of my imagination, isn’t it? In the way that a child might reflect a parent, a character reflects me, irrevocably tied by creation, if not always by advocacy.
If then, in my fiction and poetry, you can see a blurry reflection of me, why would that be less true of my nonfiction? The reflection, albeit blurry, is still a reflection, isn’t it? I look in the mirror, and I know that the reflection isn’t me—it lacks my entire interior life—but doesn’t that reflection still contain at least some aspects of who I am?
Why should I give a shit if my signifier and signified aren’t entirely equivalent? Symbols are the only things I have to express truth with, and even if they don’t convey all of the truth, they can convey some of it. The truth inherently bleeds into my fiction, and so maybe there is no fiction, but instead, only nonfiction.
In every fiction there is an aspect of nonfiction. In every signifier, some image of the signified; in every word, some aspect of myself.
I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I have written nonfiction. I have always written nonfiction. I am a nonfiction writer.