In 1901, a woman threw herself over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She was the first to survive this trip, which she had executed specifically for fame and fortune, though she earned more of the former than the latter. Despite world-wide headlines and a number of speaking engagements, she remained poor, hawking photo-ops and signatures to tourists. She also wrote a novel about the experience.
Today, when I read student work that relies on a clever conceit—such as a piece of fiction that is, ultimately, an elaborate joke; when I read stories that are technically functional but devoid of insights, I cringe. I prefer a piece that is overly sentimental but that is trying to get at something true to the undergraduate’s experience, such as love, longing, heartbreak.
Two students of mine recently asked me how to go about writing the impossible. They each had a narrative that was at once their own and also not: one was trying to write through his experience of being present during a national tragedy and another was trying to write about her illness, which was advancing at an exponential rate. I told them each that there were two possibilities: either they were resistant to taking on the responsibilities inherent in the act of narrating and they needed to face and embrace them—even if that meant getting it wrong—or their stories were unlanguagable, in which case they would have to find a new framework for giving the narrative voice.
Even our blueprint for a romantic comedy suggests this bias: two unlikely people start out as enemies and end up falling in love. Against all odds, the circumstance proves stronger than the individual will. Which is perhaps the reason why writing about romantic love is so difficult in fiction: we have to first figure out why we fall in love in real life. Is it a choice? An accident? Both? Neither?
In his manifesto Reality Hunger, David Shields uses assemblage to curate a dialogue about the limits of The Real. The voices he appropriates and sequences implicitly argue that our increasingly urgent twenty-first century desire for reality is compromised by the fact that our storytelling mechanisms are growing further from it. As Shields notes (without acknowledging in the text proper that he is parroting E. L. Doctorow), “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.”