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On Bridging the Distance Between Therapist and Theorist

by Barrie Jean Borich

craftShe’s one of those therapists with a plush blond face. She leans toward where you sit, on the sofa with the pillows that are a little too squishy, in that faux living room where neither of you live. You sink into those pillows and then you get real, get intimate, get wound up in the breaking details of your story, perhaps for the first time. Before this moment you may not have realized you had a story. The narrative you make in this room is not literary – not yet – but it is a plotted reconstruction of living, emphasizing certain action points, obscuring others. All storytelling resembles writing, but one difference between therapy and art-making is that in the therapist’s presence you have, from the first draft, a solicitous audience. The therapist meets your eyes and you cry; you always cry, she always hands you tissue, and you always wish this discreetly graying lady in khaki pants and comfortable shoes would love you even if you weren’t paying her to care, to coo:

Oh, Dear, that must have been so hard for you.

Any of us might, when lost in crisis, benefit from such gentle witness. Through compassion our experience becomes story and without such attention we might never uncover our own turning points. But literary-nonfiction writers learn early that mere recollection is not art. An honest, non-withholding authorial voice appeals on and off the page, but the last thing any writer wants in response to her literary work is a kindly caretaking nod. Palpable human hurt, confusion, passion and cross-examination are the stuff of compelling literature, but to be literary is to expand beyond common trauma and sentiment. Practiced nonfiction writers are, by now, all well-schooled in the hazards of confessional modes, understanding that if we use the simple exhale of compassion to gauge whether or not we are doing our job we cap-off our capacities as artists, dumb down the genre, and doom our projects to the short shelf life of the sensational.

But any nonfiction writer entering the realm of the personal – whether chasing an essay’s digression or immersing oneself in a full-blown revelatory memoir – sooner or later runs into a don’t-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater conundrum. We know we must move beyond the cachet of emotion into the harder-to-locate lyric lining of experience. All literature, of course, requires movement, change, opening – but what are nonfiction writers to do with the problem of achieving these qualities within the limits of the actual? We who write within a genre of fact must grapple with one foundational, if seemingly contradictory, tenet: It matters that our stories really happened, but their actuality is not the point. The energy and difficulty of the literary nonfiction writer’s work resides between life as it is lived and the rendering of that life.

At this juncture in the contemporary evolution of our genre, we’ve already heard plenty about the shortcomings of the therapeutic: emotion without theme is a cheap thrill; readers who feel sorry for a narrator will soon enough want to slip away from such pitiful company; readers need to respond with more than just sympathy to undergo the physical and intellectual re-calibration the best literature has to offer. If we fail to understand that nonfiction writing is as much a project of making as any other genre or discipline, then we do not fully transform actuality into art and both writers and readers remain stuck on that therapist’s cushy couch.

But if creative-nonfiction literature really means to excavate the slippery ground of actuality, we might also need to reconsider the tender territory we have learned, as “serious writers,” to eschew. Does our kind, sighing counselor have something to offer us as artists after all? The draft of story we release from her couch does not have the shade and shape of crafted narrative, but it might contain something else both story and essay need, which is an identification of the critical plot points of human experience.

The compassionate sigh can, if we let it, lead us to important questions. What do the sigh points mean to the literary remaking of any human life? How do we explain our unrelenting obsession with pressing moments, those autobiographical fragments we tell again and again in the cloister of therapy – or, for that matter, in our coffee chats, e-mail missives, pillow talks and dreams – until we finally find the best strategy with which to write them down? What are we trying to understand?  Creative nonfiction is a form that seeks to bridge the ineffable mess of actual living – those found moments and mad happenings of our day-to-day – with the writer-made shadow, sound, meaning and resonant light of the literary page.

Note my focus here on the bridge between. Literary nonfiction is neither just experience itself nor just the imaginative practice of language. Each of these facets implicates the other in the service of the genre’s purpose, which is the artful symbiosis of life and representation. Most literary nonfiction, if it is more than well-written exposé, and even when it reads like narrative fiction, has a charge closer to that of lyric poetry. The aim of much literary nonfiction is to get at, through words, those qualities of actual living that language is not fully equipped to convey. Language itself is no more than clusters of scratchings and sounds humans assign as placeholders for embodied comprehension. Language cannot be a body and sentences cannot be sentient, therefore our every utterance is at best a gesture.

Yet nonfiction writers devote our lives to seeking out the best language to represent actual happening, even as we understand that happening does not hold meaning until we find the words to explicate both the full body of experience itself and how that experience resounds. When we say, for instance, that literary memoir both shows and tells, we mean that the lyric discovery of the telling is as much the arc of the composition as the drama of the story itself. The bridge between our worlds and our sentences is what causes these oppositions to become one made literary entity.

We might then begin to write from whatever retrospection causes our counselor to sigh, knowing we aren’t making literature until we send the therapist away, step back from the temptation to feel sorry for ourselves or our subjects, go temporarily cold in order to think as well as feel. Once we’ve undertaken the hard and self-critical questioning the too-comfortable couch prevents, we can invite that good-listening lady to return and help us double-back over the bridge to our triggering groundswell.  Our job as writers of nonfiction prose that stands up beyond the first compassionate reading is to build a language bridge between the therapist and the theorist. That suspension of sighs, suggestion, sensory detail and sense is finally where nonfiction art resides.

Barrie Jean Borich is the nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and the author of My Lesbian Husband, winner of an American Library Association GLBT Nonfiction Book Award. She is a member of the MFA faculty of Hamline University’s Graduate School of Liberal Studies in St. Paul, Minnesota.