Confessions of a Re/Deformed Academic
For almost all of my nearly fifty-year academic career--that is, from when I was a senior undergraduate beginning to learn the craft of writing scholarly essays until recently--I have operated on the principle that the measure of my writing always should be the degree to which it reveals truth. Since I was writing non-fiction for an academic audience--and for a general readership comprising intelligent, well-read people--this meant basing as much of my argument as possible on evidence: primary sources such as manuscripts, letters, diaries, official documents, autobiographies, memoirs and other materials. It also meant bolstering my own positions or coming to terms with the opposing views of other commentators by referring comprehensively to secondary sources.
In part, this concern for accuracy and authority was a defensive reaction to a battery of examiners ranging from university instructors to thesis and dissertation committees to book reviewers and scholarly peers. It probably dates from one day in my third year at the University of Saskatchewan when I looked at an essay I had written for Edward McCourt's British novel survey course. When, as our first assignment of the year, he had given us the topic of "Reading I Like," I nearly did a cartwheel. Being a pompous young aspiring intellectual with copies of Camus and Hesse hanging conspicuously out of my back pocket, I knew that all I had to do was rattle off titles like The Plague, The Stranger, Siddhartha, Walden, Zorba the Greek, Buddenbrooks, and many others to show how far I was outstripping my illiterate fellow students.
I was astonished and stung, therefore, when Professor McCourt returned my paper with a grade of C and the simple comment "banal and superficial." I had, as I recognized when I calmed down, simply written a catalogue of names and titles without offering any justification for their literary worth or even their particular meaning for me. Lulled into a sense of false security by my pretensions, I had allow myself to be exposed in all the poverty of my scholarly substance.
After this humiliation, I never wrote an essay, paper, thesis or dissertation without seeing an examining committee in front of me ready to spot the unsubstantiated assertion and the unproven argument which would allow it to consign me to the second-rate or, God help me, the failed. Similarly, when I began to publish books I always wrote as if a battery of reviewers and well-read general readers were looking over my shoulder at my text, eager to humiliate me publicly in the pages of a newspaper or a journal over the slightest error in attribution, dates, terminology, or other facts.
In my biography Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham, for example, there is hardly a line that does not have some authority behind it. If I said that Maugham was in Manila in 1916, I had a copy of a letter he sent from that city on that date. If I claimed that his stammer intensified whenever he was tired or agitated, I could point to a number of witnesses who had written about it or spoken to me in an interview. If I argued that he was the chief Allied agent in Russia just before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, I had British Foreign Office files, gleaned from the Public Record Office, to prove it.
In other words, for every observation made in the book, I could produce substantiating evidence from a variety of sources: letters, interviews, articles, government documents, court records, marriage certificates, wills, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and critical books. The reader thus can question some of the assertions made in the biography, but he or she cannot claim that I have not gone as much as possible to the best sources on which to base those assertions.
My concern for truth, however, went beyond self-defence, beyond satisfying the probing eyes of examiners, critics, and knowledgeable readers. I have always believed that there is fundamental truth to be revealed, that a body of authentic knowledge can be created if enough people work honestly and scrupulously toward it. That is, as time goes by, the human race should be able to develop an absolutely truthful record of what has happened and why people behaved as they did. My contribution to this process, in the case of my biography, would be to provide as comprehensive and accurate a rendering of Maugham's life as possible. This would then become a block on which others could build: those writing about the British colonial experience, for example, could find an accurate record of one author's travels and writing about the Empire; those examining the history of homosexual art might find useful material in an reliable account of a prominent homosexual author's experiences; and those examining the roles of writers in wartime would learn from one author's work as an intelligence agent and propagandist in two world wars.
All of this, of course, presupposes that my biography is, at least in the very large part of it that is factual, entirely precise and accurate. If dates are wrong, people misidentified and misquoted, historical facts incorrect, and other essential information erroneously stated, the book will contribute, not to an advance of authentic knowledge, but to a false historical record.
These were the principles by which, as an academic, I was guided for most of my career. Then, in the spring of 1996, I was handed a writing project which challenged my approach and forced me into a new way of presenting the "truth." Quite unexpectedly, an eighty-one-year-old veteran of the Second World War contacted my family and gave us a suicide letter written to him by my uncle the night before he killed himself two months after the end of the war. The letter, and the recollections of this man, about an incident that had affected the direction of our family's life in so many ways, were so striking and so revealing about the widespread problem of battle fatigue that I knew that I would have to write about it.
Given the dramatic nature of my material, I first conceived of my book as a novel, but I quickly concluded that the importance of the story was that it was real: my uncle had been a real Canadian soldier who had endured what thousands of young men had gone through in the war. The book would have to be a biography, a work of non-fiction solidly grounded in the reality of life in Saskatchewan in the early decades of the twentieth century and in the social, economic, and political contexts of the time. So I set about doing my research in my usual way: locating and combing through archives, finding and interviewing those still-living people who knew my uncle, and studying the history of the Canadian involvement in World War II and the conditions in which the soldiers lived. The notes piled up; the file folders grew.
After three or four years of research, I was ready to begin writing. During that important digestion process, when one lets the material and issues of one's work simmer and percolate, however, something had happened. It became increasingly obvious that this project was unlike anything I had undertaken before: so much of the story involved my own family, and, in ways that I had not anticipated, myself. I was not dealing with a long-dead author and his work. My wife, Holly, was the first to point this out, and Maggie Siggins said the same thing: "You have to abandon the stance of objective, disinterested biographer; this is as much your story as your uncle's and you have to tell the story from your perspective."
I was persuaded, and so I began the book by describing the only time I ever saw my uncle: when he was back in Moose Jaw after five and a half years of war and I, at the age of four, walked over to my grandparent's house to see him one June morning. One of the earliest memories of my life, I now remembered only the outlines of the event and more of my own general response than of the external details. Taking great pains, and often much rewriting and polishing, I produced an account of the experience and of my uncle's subsequent suicide, his funeral, and the effect of his death on his family.
I gave these early chapters to three writers whose judgements I respected--David Carpenter, Warren Cariou, and my daughter, Alison--and I waited to hear how impressed they were, how bowled over they were by the intensity and gravity of my writing. What I got in return was a uniform shout of "Stop writing like an English professor!" I needed, they said, to abandon my stance of objectivity (or pseudo-objectivity, since I was, in fact, writing about my own family and myself), and convey my own feelings about the event. In particular, observed Warren, the meeting with my uncle needed to be fleshed out, to be made more vivid, so that the reader could vicariously re-live it with me. Were there other details--facts-- that I could add?
No, I told Warren, there were no other details; everything that I remembered (as fallible as that memory might be) was already in my account. "Well," replied Warren, "can you fabricate some descriptive material?" What?????? Fabricate? Fictionalize? Foist unsubstantiated "facts" on the innocent reader? I might as well have been asked to smuggle illegal explosives, start a pyramid scheme, or bilk innocent investors with worthless penny stocks. This was a game, to paraphrase some hopeless duffer's description of Jack Nicklaus's golf, with which I was not familiar. Still, Warren's own memoir, Lake of the Prairies, had been widely acclaimed and had won the Drainie/Taylor Prize for non-fiction, so his advice was not to be discarded lightly. And Carpenter argued that any fictionalizing of my material simply made it a more effective vehicle for communicating essential underlying truths about my story.
Persuaded by my trio of critics, I revised my opening chapter, describing more fully the terrain - the flowers and weeds that attracted me along the path through the vacant lot, the lilac hedge with its few remaining blooms at the front of my grandparents' lot, my uncle's appearance as he sat smoking a cigarette on the front steps, and my playing with building blocks on the kitchen floor while the family drank coffee and caught up on five and half years spent apart. I cannot prove that any of these elements were actually present in the experience. I can, however, say in all honesty that each of these details was true to the time and place and plausibly present on the day. Like most children, I was fascinated by the plants that grew in any untended space around my home; the lilac hedge was always a joy when it was fragrantly in bloom in early summer; my uncle would have looked that day as he did in my photographs of him taken during that visit home; and it is entirely likely that, after the excitement of my arrival at the house, the family would have sat down together while I amused myself with my toys.
Similarly, later in the book, when I was describing my grandparents receiving the telephone call telling them of my uncle's suicide, I created a scene which I could not possibly have witnessed. I described my grandfather home on a Friday evening after a week of travelling as a salesman for the Co-op Creamery, and my grandmother waiting to hear whether she had yet again won prizes for her baking and knitting at the local fair. I wrote that they were still grateful that their son had returned from Europe without apparent injury and that they were wondering how his reunion with his wife in Vancouver was going. I have no proof that this is exactly how they learned of his death. I do know that this is how they spent many a Friday evening in the summer in Moose Jaw during fair week, and I do know that the reassuring predictability of their peaceful and assuming lives was shattered by an entirely unexpected telephone call. My account of their experience, though fabricated from what I knew of their habits and their behaviour, can be argued to convey this shattering in a very effective way.
In many other places in the book, I embellished accounts of one particular family--my own--with details drawn from general sources: newspapers, memoirs, historical and social studies, military histories, and interviews. The result was a book that has been widely praised for the authenticity and realism of its portrayal of the effect of my uncle's tragedy on my family--and on several other families that were affected by his suicide. Many older readers, moreover, have commented that the description of Saskatchewan during the Depression years and of their lives during the Second World War is absolutely as they experienced them. So, perhaps Carpenter is right: it may be that, by some discreet and careful fictionalizing, one can fabricate a portrait that will in the end communicate a fundamental and important truth.
I dislike the term "creative non-fiction" because it implies that there is a body on non-fiction prose that is not creative. In fact all non-fiction, like all poetry, fiction and drama, is creative; some is just much more creative than others. My book--which was called A Richer Dust: Family, Memory and the Second World War--was thus offered to the reader as non-fiction, that is, as "real" and as "truth." Unlike Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, it was not called a "non-fiction novel;" and unlike Lois Simmie in her fine book The Secret Lives of Sgt John Wilson, I did not warn the reader in a preface that I would be contriving scenes which would be imaginative extrapolations of hard evidence.
Does the reader, then, have a right to complain that I have offered fiction disguised as fact? If not, are readers justified in complaining about James Frey's offering a highly fictionalized version of his life as a true history? Should non-fiction writers, as Alberta Manguel suggested at a recent Saskatchewan Writers Guild Conference, forget about nagging details like dates and place names and write what they want?
As always, the difficulty in such matters is where the line is to be drawn. I'm still enough of a historian to believe very strongly that any non-fiction writing should be firmly grounded in as much verifiable fact as possible. Those facts should not be ignored or distorted in and rendering of experience. The "truth" of that experience, however, may lie beyond the factual level, and it may be best communicated by techniques and strategies of fiction. And, if we were to look closely enough, we would see that memoirists and autobiographers have always done that. Ultimately, we would even have to admit that authors of scholarly books have always done that, but they have learned to hide their subjectivity more cleverly.