by William Bradley
1. The students in my creative nonfiction class believe wholeheartedly in the adage “Honesty is the best policy.” This serves them well as nonfiction writers, but I worry that they might be a bit delusional about how honesty works in the adult world. Upon finishing Bernard Cooper’s memoir The Bill from My Father, several students complained that Cooper should have confronted his father over his sexual infidelities, defended the honor of his long-dead mother, pressed the truth out into the open, so that both father and son could have a cathartic moment of revelation and acknowledge the reality that they had refused to talk about.
I responded by telling these students that you can’t force a satisfying narrative, full of epiphanies and following the map of an inverted checkmark or Freitag’s triangle, on a memoir. We’re rooted to who we are, and who we have been, and real human beings don’t always behave the way we need for them to in order for the narrative to leave us feeling like we’d just read a well-constructed novel. Real life isn’t so neatly arranged, and the nonfiction we write needs to try to capture the truth in all of its inconvenient complexity.
2. My mother once begged me not to write nonfiction about my grandmother, which was kind of an unreasonable request because my grandmother once wished out loud that I would die so that my mother would learn a lesson about loss, the kind of lesson my grandmother herself learned when her oldest son, my mother’s brother, and one of the men in the family I’m named after, Billy died. And then, the following year, I developed cancer and had to have a bone marrow transplant.
I was 26 at this point, and convinced that I was Michele de Montaigne’s intellectual heir, destined to write the complete truth as I understood it, without straining or artifice. And this type of material—cancer and an angry grandmother’s curse— could probably get my book featured on Oprah.
“You can’t write about that,” my mother argued. “It would just devastate her.”
“But Mom,” I whined, “she’s the one who wished for me to die. I didn’t do anything wrong, and this is really good material.” My mother sighed. “Could you wait until she’s dead, at least?”
3. When my brother worked at a newspaper in upstate New York, a woman who worked with him—in circulation or classifieds or maybe answering the phone, but not in the newsroom— told him that she thought the U.S. shouldn’t give foreign aid to any other countries under any circumstances. “Do you know,” she asked him as they both stood outside the office, smoking their cigarettes in the snow, “that the United States is the only country in the world that gives money to other countries?” My brother stared at her.
“That’s simply not true,” he replied. “Name another one.” He began rattling off the names of virtually every industrialized country before she grew frustrated. “I was just expressing an opinion,” she said.
That’s the thing about facts—they only matter to those who recognize them. That which can be known objectively or scientifically might be something we “agree to disagree” on if the reality doesn’t match that which one’s audience would like to believe. So, include facts in your essay if you want. Or don’t. I would advise you against just making shit up, but don’t limit your essay to only that which is verifiable.
Frankly, I read essays for ideas, in order to encounter a unique human consciousness. Even a deluded consciousness is going to be interesting to read.
4. I sometimes use the words “memoir” and “essay” inter- changeably, even though they’re not quite the same thing. Es- says are focused on ideas, memoirs on experience. Both spring from the author’s consciousness, though. Both are records of a mind—thought and memory inevitably mingle. I don’t know how much thought turns a memoir into an essay, or how much action an essay into memoir. This isn’t something I lose sleep over, but I do worry that I might sometimes confuse people when I speak of nonfiction forms.
5. I am skeptical of anyone who writes an essay proclaim- ing “expertise”—particularly if it’s an essay on essays. I should tell you, though, that my first piece of published scholarship was an article that sought to delineate the ethical considerations a nonfiction writer “should” keep in mind. And while I still hold my own writing to the standards of truthfulness and factual accuracy I articulated in that article, it now seems to me unspeakably arrogant for a 30-year-old with three creative nonfiction publications on his curriculum vitae and still in his first year on the tenure track to tell other writers how they should approach their own work. I thought I was being bold, daring, audacious.Now I think I was probably just a dick.
6. I have a secret. Not about me—about someone else. Something I’ve never written about. Something I’ve only dis- cussed with my wife and one family member. It is a secret that I think others might already know, but if they don’t, the results could be devastating.
7. That previous item is a lie. Oh, I have this secret that I’ve kept from a lot of people, but I realized—while I was writ- ing this—that there are people I have told: I have told my cre- ative nonﬁction students, almost every semester. I tell them this devastating secret as an example of something I won’t write about while certain family members are still alive. Because even though, as Didion tells us, “Writers are always selling somebody out,” I have my limits.
8. One limit I have—until now, I had never written about my grandmother or her wish for me to die. She has been dead herself for seven years now. I had wanted to tell that story for a long Then, when she died and I was free to write it, I found I no longer wanted to. It no longer seemed as interesting as it once did. In fact, it’s a lot less strange, dark, and tragic than it seemed to me while she lived. If that anecdote is interesting at all, it’s only interesting in terms of what it reveals about choices nonfiction writers have to make sometimes.
9. Essays are always working. They exist as ideas in the es- sayist’s head long before pen is put to paper or ﬁngers tap keys. More importantly, they articulate ideas that burrow into the reader’s mind and lay eggs. If that thought disturbs you, then you’re beginning to understand the power of the essay. Pope tells us that a little learning is a dangerous thing; for example, learning from Hazlitt that hating is a pleasurable act causes the well-intentioned reader consternation. How can this be? We’re supposed to love one another, aren’t we? But damned if it isn’t true—sometimes, I ﬁnd hating feels good. But then I re-read my James Baldwin, Note how this Native Son observes that hate will consume and destroy the hater. And I realize this is true as well. This shit keeps me up, as those essays work the mind’s graveyard shift.
10. Orwell wisely identified “Sheer egoism” as one reason people write. To write about oneself, to declare to the world, “I watch General Hospital—now you should read why”… yeah, that’s some narcissism right there. You kinda want to belt such an arrogant jackass in the mouth. Yet the essay is also well-in- tentioned, honest, and an attempt to reveal perceived truth to the reader. Our patron saint Montaigne told us in his Essais that “Every man has within himself the entire human ” Our essays help us to discover that which we have in common in a world that wants to separate us into warring factions—blue state vs. red state, atheists vs. faithful, people who like Nickelback vs. people who like music. The essay brings us together, reminds us of our common humanity.
11. But if the essay is egotistical, we must understand that it is never solipsistic. Solipsism requires one to doubt the authen- ticity of anything outside that individual’s mind. But the essay- ist requires a reader’s consciousness to interact with her own. I could write every thought that ever entered my head, but the entire exercise would be meaningless if I couldn’t be sure that your consciousness would encounter mine in order to engage with the ideas I engage—illness, grandmothers, soap operas, whatever. In this way, an essay is always a bet against solipsism, and is in its own way an act of faith.
12. An essay written but never shown to anyone can’t really be said to exist. Without the reader’s consciousness to consider the essayist’s prose, it remains static, ineffective, unconsidered—not an essay at all, really. Writers need readers. Of course, some- times we need to write to ourselves, in our diaries or journals or early drafts that are not worth a reader’s attention. But the writer who never shares his work is no more an essayist than the virgin who masturbates a lot is a “player.”
13. I’ve noticed that many of the best memoirists I know call themselves essayists. It’s like memoir as a form is too tawdry, too sullied by the “inspirational stories” of “overcoming obstacles” standing in the way of “love” with “consequences” that can break the author into “a million little pieces.”
I want to tell these memoirists that they (we?) ought to reclaim their (our?) own form, to proudly proclaim, “This is my memoir—written in the glorious tradition of Speak, Memory and Stop-Time. It is not self-indulgent. It is thoughtful and complex and, above all, ambitious.” But then again, as I said before, I’m no longer interested in telling people what they ought to do with their own writing—and I have my own problems with these la- bels anyway. Also, as I’ve said before, the line between essay and memoir is very ﬁne indeed—if I can’t be sure what it is that I’m writing, I probably shouldn’t presume to explain to other people what it is that they’re writing. So I keep my mouth shut and watch my General Hospital.
14. My essays and memoirs are full of contradictions. In some, I suggest that I am a misanthrope who has to be dragged to dinner parties by my wife. In others, I admit that I really like people and ﬁnd it easy to talk to strangers. My work is full of contradictions because my mind is full of contradictions. When you get right down to it, no narrator is ever reliable.
15. Here’s a fact: I’ve always wanted to research and write about Sylvester Graham, 19th century minister and dietary re- former. He promoted the health beneﬁts of vegetarianism and warned about the dangers of chemical additives in our food. He invented Graham crackers, which were a staple throughout my childhood. What I didn’t know, when I was a kid, was that Graham invented his crackers because he thought bland foods curbed lust and prevented masturbation, which he regarded as a compulsion that led to insanity. Spicy foods and heavy meats, Graham argued, inevitably led to dolphin-flogging.
The friend who first told me about Graham also told me that he was beaten to death by a mob of angry butchers. This is not true—the butchers merely threatened to riot when Graham was scheduled to give a speech in Boston. He actually died of natural causes—if an early death following a years-long diet of Graham crackers and water can be considered natural. Still, it’s fun to think of that group of angry butchers, coming after Graham, pummeling him with salamis and bolognas and hams. A meat-beating, if you will.
16. Because this is an essay and essays should reveal truth, I should tell you that I just realized that my own history of self- abuse started at around the time I stopped eating Graham crackers every day.
17. The past fades, landscapes change, and some things—of- ten very small but kind of significant things—get lost We don’t see pay phones anymore. No more ashtrays on airplanes. No more neon signs advertising “Color TV” in the windows of cheap motels. No more video arcades at the mall—everyone is playing Halo and Madden in their homes.
I guess maybe it’s silly to care about such things, but it makes me sad to think that the world is slipping away. The world that we live in tomorrow won’t be quite the same as the world we’re living in today, and very few of us will slow down and notice the tiny changes.
The world I have lived in is drifting out of sight.
I want to hold onto that world. I want to capture the world where 6-year-old Billy Bradley ate his Graham crackers while watching General Hospital with the cousin who was babysitting him while she talked on a corded phone. It seems worthwhile, to preserve a bit of the world as it was.
18. It’s all connected. Getting a puppy and naming him “Barkley.” John Hinckley shooting the president. The Challenger exploding in the Florida sky. Taking First Communion. Going to see Temple of Doom in the theater (but being taken out to the lobby during the “ripping-out-of-the-heart” scene). The fall of the Berlin Wall. Moving to a new town in the 10th grade. The election of Bill Clinton. Hearing Lou Reed’s New York for the ﬁrst time and feeling like I’d just discovered something pow- erful and new. The siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Kissing a girl for the first time (and knowing she’ll eventually break my heart, because she has a boyfriend already). Losing faith in God. Having sex for the ﬁrst time (different girl, similar heartbreak). Being diagnosed with cancer. Getting che- motherapy treatments while President Clinton promises “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Getting an autolo- gous bone marrow transplant while President Clinton explains why he’s bombing Iraq. Losing faith in President Clinton. Re- discovering Faith in God. Receiving radiation treatments while India and Pakistan play a game of nuclear chicken. Watching the Twin Towers fall. Falling in love. Visiting the grandmother who wished, once upon a time, that I would die, nodding patient- ly as she confused me with my father, and realizing what a prick I am to have ever thought of selling her out in print. Learning a devastating secret. Getting political. Getting married. Get- ting published. Getting the shit knocked out of me, profession- ally speaking. Getting up, writing more, applying for university jobs, sending my book manuscript out into the world. Because it’s worth it.
This is a life. This life begets ideas. These ideas beget writing. It’s all connected.
19. And it will never stop. Not while I’m living.
20. If you have been reading this far waiting to hear the scandalous secret that I know, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. And I’m afraid you have perhaps missed the This secret I know doesn’t involve anyone you have ever met. It would only matter to a small number of us. The fact under discussion is, largely, immaterial; the story of this situation involves my own struggle with this knowledge, with the contradiction inherent in being both a writer of nonﬁction—what James Wolcott might call an exhibitionist with an agenda—and a keeper of secrets. My mind is the plot, wherein these warring ideas of self are buried.
21. “Hold on to people, they’re slipping away.” Moby repeats this line fourteen times at the end of his song “Slipping Away.” And that, in the end, is why I feel so obsessive about document- ing so much of the past as I remember it—it’s not just an exercise in narcissism, exhibitionism, or intellectual masturbation, the way some critics of nonfiction forms lazily claim. And it’s more than abandoned buildings, cancelled television shows, and obsolete technology. It’s the people who lived, watched, and uti- lized. As time pushes us forward, we lose the world as it was and some of the people who inhabited it. We’re on a one-way trip to an undiscovered country. Our nonfoctions—essays, memoirs, what have you—are the only records of the scenery we encounter along the way, imperfect and incomplete as they may sometimes be. Nous essayons, as our patron saint might insist.
William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and The Utne Reader. He teaches at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He has just completed his first book, a collection of essays focused on love, illness, and his own nerdy pop culture obsessions.