Navigating Knowledge

“Creative nonfiction” – a contradiction in terms? No. Like the sailor manning the helm of a ship, we cannot strive for the perfect course to truth. The only thing we can do is watch, listen, and carefully reconstruct the world as it presents itself.

The term “creative nonfiction” is something of a contradiction. “Nonfiction” would seem to indicate that we rely on the immutable truth of fact: objects that can be observed, measured, and described with accuracy; events that can be proven, verified historically. “Creative” would seem to indicate the opposite: we are inventing, imagining conjuring a world more artfully arranged than the one in which we actually live.

But art is made of paradox.

For me, writing creative nonfiction is a lot like celestial navigation. In celestial navigation, you begin with the assumption that, at any given second, an object (the ship you are sailing) can be located precisely on the face of the globe. Without venturing into the required trigonometry, it’s enough to realize that the navigator’s job is to use the known positions of the sun and stars, precisely calibrated into tables, to fix that position on a chart, which is merely a representation of a piece of the earth’s surface. He or she does this using a sextant, which simply measures the angle of suns and stars above the horizon. Many calculations later, the navigator has first a line, then an intersection of lines, and at last a position.

That position is the spot on earth where, at some exact moment in time, your vessel is located. But of course this is all a fiction: the imperfections of the navigator, the difficulty of shooting a star or the sun on a rolling deck at sea, a minute error in calibration of the sextant, a trivial error in arithmetic, and the position is, ever so slightly, wrong.

So there is an absolute truth out there, and you, the navigator/writer, work with all good faith and diligence to locate it, but in the end your imperfections taint the process, and what you achieve instead is an approximate truth: a position that may be quite close, but is almost never going to be exact, for the simple reason that humans and human-made things are imperfect. So your craft over years lies in approaching the truth, getting a closer and closer fix on your true position, though like the actor in Zeno’s Paradox, you will never actually arrive at the exact truth. We could cheat and use a Global Positioning Satellite, but even the best of that technology is exact to only within a meter or so.

What’s more, if you practice for years and become a very good navigator, you may in some starry twilight actually achieve your exact position, locate the truth precisely on a map, but you will never know it. How could you? The method of verification itself is the one that gave you your answer in the first place.

So what does this teach us about the nature of truth? That as writers we must be humble about making claims to absolute truth—but that is not the same thing as denying that it exists, somewhere out there, if only we had the gifts to see it and comprehend it.

The best we can do, I believe, is to strive for absolute truthfulness: observe the world carefully, report it accurately, listen hard to the voices of others, catch the nuances in human behavior, be alert for the dangers of true believers who insist that they know the Truth.

When you’re navigating on a pitching deck in looking darkness, Doubt, not Certainty, is your best pilot.

Read more in this debate: Julian Arni, Lee Gutkind, Gay Talese.

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