Nov. 24, 2012, circa 11:11pm, Gchat.
Michaela: currently trying to start an editor’s note precisely about feeling things and personal things and etc
while simultaneously not being too personal about it and somehow connecting it to why we need good nonfiction work in our public schools and storytelling and taylor swift
S: oh wow! i can’t wait to read it
M: while also calling attention to the medium of writing itself
S: that sounds tricky
Ceci n’est pas une Editor’s Note.
Since I know you’re wondering, yes, it was recently the 114th birthday of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, who made famous half of that sentence. And, yes, given that I’m the editor of a written publication and someone who has begun feeling okay including “writer” in response to questions—no matter how superficial—about my identity or “future plans,” I have a vested interest in language and how we use it.
If I tell you, as I attempted above, that “this is not an Editor’s Note,” I’m curious about how you’d classify this editorial. We’ve left the Editor’s Note open thus far for, among others, a rant against a metal band, a defense of Young Adult literature, a condemnation of calling women “crazy” and various calls-to-arms for the arts at Duke. We’ve even written—musically, I’d argue—about how to write about music. No matter the subject or conceptual frame, we use the same written medium—varied according, and beautifully so, to our own style—to articulate a language for dealing with our world. And in this vaguely designed “arts and culture” editorial vehicle, that language necessarily comes from our experience—our experience as Duke students; as men and women and sons and daughters and siblings; as poets, musicians, scientists, dancers, athletes; as young people who like to be around each other and who are curious about culture.
I’m curious if maybe, upon deeper consideration, past “opinion writing” or “journalism,” you’d call this writing that always occupies Page Two of Recess “nonfiction.” Last Thursday The New York Times published an op-ed by Sara Mosle, titled, “What Should Children Read?” Defending the importance of good nonfiction, Mosle discusses the newly developed Common Core Standards, a “set of national benchmarks... for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics.” She describes what these Standards do, besides elicit my metaphorical groan at their tasteless administrative phrasing: “Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.”
That nonfiction consists of “informational texts,” such as historical documents and “scientific tracts.” One image I’ve preserved from my Thanksgiving break—apart from driving to the sweet sounds of Taylor Swift’s* new album and fearing that upon returning to Duke I’d have no language left save for her lyrics— is sprawling languidly in our family room while my mom, a teacher, read aloud examples of this “nonfiction,” allotted per grade.
“No,” I spat out into my pillow, in response to the sound of Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet and political treatises by the likes of George Washington and Patrick Henry. I bristle at the Common Core Standards’ per-grade charting and color-coding in the same way that I bristle at the College Board’s primary colors and acorn logo. I bristle more at Mosle’s depiction of David Coleman, incidentally the president of the College Board, who “helped design and promote the Common Core” and “says English classes today focus too much on self-expression.”
Later in the Gchat that’s excerpted above, my friend mentioned that her least favorite saying is “don’t take it personally.” I quickly agreed. I have a big problem with the denial of the personal, of the self, in creative work, and with the notion that we can prescribe this denial on a large scale. I have a big problem with how the “personal” is sectioned off from the “academic” or the “intellectual.” As if to feel something, and to acknowledge and work out that feeling—in speech, in action, and by extension in writing and in art—isn’t the way to live seriously. Upholding sentiment, vibe, inkling, curiosity is seen, and especially with these new Standards, as a divergence and devaluation from fact and truth— nonfiction, as we’re taught to understand it. This mentality is unfortunate, because it perpetuates the nonfiction/fiction “smackdown” Mosle mentions: English instructors’ tug between teaching a novel or an article, a poem or a treatise, and their increasing mandate to focus on the latter.
I’m not here to rally for that smackdown. Its language presumes that fiction and nonfiction are diametrically opposed, and that all of us understand, and want to maintain, whatever their difference is. With that, I’m not here to elevate some notion of “nonfiction” over “fiction.” I tried journalism in high school and continued it at Duke, and through it have found a tangible way to capitalize on my curiosities about people and things. “Nonfiction” writing has always been my creative go-to, more than short stories or poetry. But, that said, I’d defend to the death those two literary genres (and not just because I’m an English major), just as I’d defend anything that ultimately goes in these Editor’s Notes. Writing well, and producing a good story, in each of these contexts involves creative process—one that necessarily emerges from rigorous personal experience. “Nonfiction” and “fiction” writing are exercises in empathy, and at empathy’s core is an understanding of, and respect for, the self. What good nonfiction does well—read Mosle’s piece for some examples, or I can hand you my Documentary Writing syllabus, and then blab about writers I like who blur the fiction-nonfiction distinction*—is the same as what good fiction does well. Both demonstrate, with forms and approaches as varied as our Editor’s Notes, that life is messy, unresolved and infinitely nuanced; they’re a neverending riff on the personal. And variations on the personal are themselves neverending. Whereas part of mine is a focus on women writers and artists, Ireland and the American South and the arts in education and policy, an equal part is my anxiety, my humor and my relationships. I’ve only figured that out through creative work, which forces us, no matter the project, to determine, in real-time, what we know and don’t know, but most importantly what we’re curious about.
*"NPR/Guy Raz: Is there a line that you won’t cross when it comes to writing about how you feel?
Taylor Swift: I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced that line before."
*Virginia Woolf, Sheila Heti and Marina Keegan (please, if you haven’t yet, read “Cold Pastoral”), among others
Updated 11/29/12, 2:27 p.m.:
A previous version of this Editor's Note misrepresented Magritte's nationality. He is Belgian. Isn't life messy?