Monday, November 17, 2008

All Writing Is Fiction

You read it here first, and it's pithy enough to be remembered. Writing, by being interpretive, can't be anything but an invention, not matter how well-researched or objective.

I came by this realization recently at a used book store in Philadelphia. More than ten thousand books, many with obsessive footnoting and references to other, earlier works. Now certainly, had I been willing to do some research, I could have found the referenced works and inspected their footnotes, which would have led me to more fanatical and neurotic explorations... ad nauseam. But every single word written by all the authors and their sources were their words, the ones they thought best described the situation. And no two writers will ever see the exact same thing and describe it in the same manner. What is a bright fall day for me is the beginning of a dismal winter for you. So it's all fiction.

And think of this: What, if the research assumed to be correct is wrong? More fiction. So what we have is a basic fact: every biography, investigative or history book, every scientific tome and learned volume purporting to tell us anything at all, is basically a work of fiction. We cannot write, or paint or sculpt absolutes.

Somehow, to me, this is magnificently entertaining because I like subjectivity. I am much more interested in how things are perceived than how they really are, and anyway, I have a pretty strong suspicion that no one has a clue as to what really is. We just like to think we do...

How amazing. Rene Magritte was right. It wasn't a pipe at all, just one man's idea of what a pipe is supposed to look like. That makes my day.

Here's installment 56 of Wasted Miracles.
“It’s not much of a place.” Catherine let the words hang. She had been quiet throughout the ride from Virginia. They were sitting in Colin’s battered 924. The door to the garage that housed Africorp’s limos was shut and no one had responded to their knocking.
“We’ll wait a bit longer. The man I spoke with said Mamadou would be back around three.” Colin looked at his watch. “It’s almost that now.”
“How do people live here?” Catherine nodded to the street, the building, the trash. “I don’t understand how people can live like this and not do anything about it.”
“I guess they have other things to worry about than whether their streets are clean.”
They’d been waiting fifteen minutes and during that time had seen only two people, a pair of young boys who had eyed the car suspiciously and scampered down an alley.
“It’s hard to believe this is Washington. I mean, this doesn’t look like a part of America.”
“Inner city. Not that bad compared to some other places like Detroit, or the South Bronx.”
Catherine looked out again. “I’ve never been to neighborhoods like this. Guess I’ve led a protected life.”
“Be thankful.”
Suddenly the car rocked. Catherine stifled a scream. A black face wearing large wraparound sunglasses was peering in her window. She drew back.
“Y’all lookin’ for somethin’?”
Colin leaned over. “We’re just waiting for someone.”
The face considered this. “Unh hun. I see. But this here’s a bad place to be waitin’ for anythin’ if you don’ have business to transac’. Y’all sure I can’t hep you out?”
Colin said, “Nope. We’re fine. Thanks.” And felt foolish.
The man straightened up, ambled away.
Catherine asked, “Was he selling drugs? Just like that, right in the open? Aren’t there any policemen around here?”
Colin looked at her. “See any?”
She didn’t bother to look around. “Scary place.”
The limo pulled up next to them so silently neither Colin nor Catherine noticed it until the garage door swung open. Colin started his car, followed the Cadillac in, waited for Mamadou to get out. “Do you like this neighborhood, Colin? You seem to be spending a lot of time here.” Mamadou was not wearing his chauffeur uniform. He walked around the Porsche, opened the door on Catherine’s side, waited for her to get out. “You must be the young woman’s mother. The resemblance is striking.” He added, “Colin showed me her photo. I’m sorry about your plight.”
“Plight?” Catherine repeated it, surprised by the choice of words.
Mamadou glanced at Colin. “Is that the wrong expression. I apologize. English is not my native language.”
“Plight is fine,” Colin said. “Mamadou Dioh, this is Catherine Stilwell. I thought the two of you should meet.”
Mamadou bowed slightly at the waist. Catherine saw a tall, well-built man with the fine features and aquiline nose of an Ethiopian. Mamadou met her gaze, smiled. “My grandmother was born in Addis so I don’t look like the classic West African. You’ve been to Africa?”
Catherine shook her head. Mamadou shrugged. “I thought, perhaps, since your husband is with the State Department...”
There was a silence. Colin filled it, asked, “I know there hasn’t been much time, but have you learned anything?”
Before he could answer, Catherine said, “Colin told me about your earlier... encounter with drug dealers. And why it happened. I’m very sorry about your sister, and I’m grateful for anything you might be able to do to help with my daughter, with Josie.”
“Which has not been all that much, so far, I’m afraid. But I’ve set some wheels in motion, and I’m hopeful.”
The exchange petered out. Mamadou saw the exhaustion in Catherine eyes, the despair behind the false front. He debated with himself for a moment, added, “There are some people who seem to know everything that happens in Washington. One of those people is my friend. More than a friend, actually.” And he told them about Aunt Mim.

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