Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unflappable Normalcy

"When you write non-fiction, you have to at least pretend to be a person of some unflappable normalcy who is making reasonable judgments.” Nicholson Baker

I've been thinking about this quote since it landed in my inbox the other day, via The Writer's Almanac. As yet, I haven't come to any conclusions about it, but what a ripe juicy thing to roll around, to chew on a bit.

There are some assumptions to be made:
• He's probably not referring to writing memoir; rather, the non-fiction in this case is more likely essays or books about specific things, ideas or notable people.
• The "reasonable judgments" in question may be related to facts or statistics or something along those lines.

I keep thinking, though, that the very act of writing memoir does require one to situate oneself at a distance from whatever drives the impulse to write, the...abnormality? unreasonableness? dysfunction? surrounding the period about which one is writing. To be unflappable in looking back seems a minimal requirement, considering some of the events that haunt so many of us, making it necessary to write a memoir in the first place. Isn't there something hopeful about the idea of at least pretending to be "normal" (whatever that is) while involved in such an endeavor?

As I say, no conclusion at yet, but then there's this: the rest of the quote is about writing fiction, about which Mr. Baker says, “Fiction, on the other hand, allows you to be a little more provisional and vulnerable, and truer. You can think over the self-medicational function of rhyme and, on the same day, cut some of your finger off with a breadknife."

Now that sounds familiar.


Elisabeth said...

A fantastic quote here, Elizabeth, but I'm not sure I agree. The unflappable quality might need to ring through in fiction too.

I think it's more about creating an illusion. But that's always subject to the reader's interpretation.

Is this article available on-line? I'd love to read it. It may be relevant to my so-called 'research' into life writing and the desire for revenge.


EditorCarol said...

I think you've just helped me figure out why I've been unable to keep a journal for the last several years.

Elizabeth Hilts said...


Here's the link:

Part of why this stuck with me is, I think, that I'm not sure I agree, either. I do love something that keeps tugging at my mind like this quote did.

I'll be fascinated to read whatever you write about life writing and the desire for revenge.

Elizabeth Hilts said...


Tell me more!

SY said...

What an interesting quote to explore I understand your dilemma with the first half but the second is crystal clear. Fiction gives you the opportunity to do the impossible.

Elizabeth Hilts said...

I might have to give fiction a try when I'm done with the memoir.