The Realities Of Group Life

Creative nonfiction writers invest their articles and books with the feeling of real life, life as it's lived, not as we think it might be, or should be, but as close as possible to the various realities that exist simultaneously in this world. One of the most effective techniques for accomplishing this is the inclusion of details. Since most creative nonfiction deals with men and women, writers pay particular attention to how people live, not in the abstract, but in the everyday world. Now, you may be thinking, "Don't all nonfiction writers write the truth about the people they're discussing? Do journalists lie?" No, they don't lie; they all believe they're talking about real people and would never agree that they speak in the abstract about people—but many do. They've been trained that way in college and on the job.

Until fairly recently, for example, most newspaper and magazine writers would never quote someone swearing or blaspheming— their words would either be shown with censoring dashes or dots, and only the more "civilized" words would be quoted. If the writer wanted, nevertheless, to write truthfully, he or she would be limited to saying that the man swore and blasphemed outrageously (now, that's writing in the abstract!). If a prisoner on his way to the cell raised his middle finger at the reporters, it would likely have been reported that he gestured obscenely. This is not being realistic. We know that every person from grammar school on probably knows this obscene gesture and may even have used it. The creative nonfiction writer should report the concrete details, les petits vrais (the little truths), of the realities of group life. Concrete details include gestures and curses; sports and games; fashion and food fads; religious activities; the trappings of professions; where and how the people live; and bits of their captured conversations.

In the October 1983 Sophisticated Traveler section of the Sunday New York Times, William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote about the advantages of cruising the Caribbean in a chartered yacht rather than traveling commercially. All you have to do to make the weekly charter costs is to share the yacht with two other couples.

I confess I have not been aboard a commercial cruising boat during the conventional one or two weeks in the Caribbean. Probably there is much to be said for this way of seeing the islands, in preference to hotel life. But your very own boat is really the way to go, and one might as well quickly confront the proposition, "Isn't this out of the question for the average pocketbook?" The answer is: Yes. But so is a week aboard any of the more luxurious liners or a week at any of the fancier hotels. In round figures—if you include meals, drinks, tips, taxis—you are talking about something over $400 per couple a day, times seven comes to—well, close to $3,000 a week. Last Christmas we chartered a boat that cost $1,000 a day, including food but not drinks, tips or taxies. Throw these in even profusely, and you are still short of $9,000 a week. But there are three couples sharing the boat, so that the cost, for each couple—less than $3,000—is comparable to the hotels.

These matter-of-fact words about the costs of yachts, taxis, and tips give us an immediate, realistic impression of life as lived by the wealthy. It's the straightforwardness of the discussion that makes it real for us. Buckley doesn't apologize for, or seem embarrassed by, these high figures. He doesn't compare or contrast that lifestyle with how the rest of us live on vacation. He just says what he wants to say to his audience through accurate and precise details.

When Annie Dillard traveled with the Chinese writers she recorded in Encounters with Chinese Writers, some vignettes of life in China that stay with the readers, first because of her accuracy of observation, and second because of her willingness and ability to put them down just as experienced—not after first putting the thoughts through some kind of ideological pasta machine. My impression is that she writes of the real.

In the cities, where incomes are five times those in the country, families are saving industrial coupons for years on end to buy a bicycle, or to buy a sewing machine with which to fashion both clothes and bedding from their cotton allotment of six yards per person per year. The family lives in its one or two cement rooms. The wife washes the twigs and stones from the rationed rice and cooks some cabbage on a shared stove. Six days a week the husband and wife put in long hours in their production units; the wife spends two hours a day buying food. On Sundays they bring the baby home from the nursery school, where one-third of Beijing's babies live. They all dress up and go to the park, which has several plots of flowers.

The writer impressed me by how much I learned about China in so short a paragraph. I can imagine some other writer faced with giving basically the same amount of information, but being unable to put it down simply. Such compression (while retaining some gracefulness of expression) could only be accomplished through such conscientious attention to those details that said something directly about life at that place at that time. She didn't, for example, contrast that twig-and stone-laced rice with Americans' snow-white, pure rice; there was no discussion about the comparative nutrient value of the two rices and no long political explanation of "rationed rice"—just the plain, clearly expressed images of what she saw and heard. She took me with her when she ended on the quiet irony that this park for which everyone dressed up has but several plots of flowers.

Novelist Sara Davidson has also published articles in many of the magazines that appreciate creative nonfiction writing: Harper's, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Ms. In Real Property, a book that presents many of these articles, she includes the following piece about group life in Venice, California, the closest place to downtown L.A. where you can live on the beach—and the only place in that giant, spread-out city where there's real life in the street. As she says in that book, "You are guaranteed to see people outside their cars." Here's part of her presentation of life in Venice.

Living in Venice is like living in a camp for semi-demented adults. At every hour, day and night, there are people playing volleyball, running, rolling on skates, riding bikes, skateboards, surf boards, flying kites, drinking milk, eating quiche lorraine. Old people sit under umbrellas playing checkers. Body builders work out in a sandy pen, and crowds line up three deep to perform on the paddle tennis courts. When do these people work? I used to wonder.

The residents of Venice fall into two groups. Those who work, and those who don't. The latter includes senior citizens, drifters, drug addicts, hopeful moviemakers and aging hippies and surfers who have made a cult of idleness and pleasure. The other groups includes lawyers, dentists, real estate brokers, accountants. Many are workaholics, attached to their jobs as they are to nothing else. They work nights and weekends, eat fast food while driving to and from their work and live alone, longing, in the silence before falling asleep, for connection.

Everyone comes together on the boardwalk. The natives own their own skates, and the tourists rent them from places like "Cheapskates" and "United Skates of America."

I like the way Sara Davidson lured me into the paragraph by saying that Venice is "a camp for semi-demented adults." I couldn't resist reading on to learn what she meant (or half-meant). She didn't tell me in some sociological fashion, she showed me these adults riding their skateboards, flying their kites, and drinking their milk (what a delightful surprise). As I read that paragraph, I began to wonder how all these adults could be out playing around, seemingly all the time—and then she answered me. A sociologist would never do it, but a creative non-fiction writer can do it—divide the population into just two groups, those who work and those who don't. I found it particularly good writing to then bring these divided groups together again—on the famous boardwalk where girls in sequined tube tops skate gracefully in and out of the slower pedestrian traffic. My memory even served up a commercial that showed a young woman on skates delivering soft drinks to customers along that boardwalk—another example of how, when concrete details are used, the reader's memory will supply bits and pieces of relevant information to make more understandable the new information it is receiving. Someone else will not dredge up that same commercial; they'll dredge up the handsome man who graced a roller rink in Fort Wayne at a church outing ten years ago. Such is the combined power of concrete details and the brain for achieving realism.

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