Remembering What Counts

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Last Sunday a friend was in town for a week of business meetings, and we’d arranged months earlier to get together on what ended up being the nicest summer day Chicago had all season. We met in the Fall of 2001 at a job where we worked together for about six years. Jill was a part-timer, finishing a PhD in west Texas, although she’ll be the first to tell you she’s from New Jersey, which instantly makes me smile. So often her conversations begin with, “I’m from Jersey,” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes with anyone from The Garden State, you’d know she was raised there even if she hadn’t started the discussion with, “I’m from Jersey.”

I began the job about two or three weeks before her, and she was born a couple of months before me in the same year. That initiated the first Stone-1, Mullholland-1 rivalry. I may have begun the job earlier, she is forever younger than me, exemplifying a competitive predisposition foIMG_0643r which the Jersey girl hasn’t lost her passion. She’ll cleverly walk me into a Mullholland-1, Stone-0 faceoff on Facebook with a glee belying our presumed maturity.

We hit if off immediately, and by the end of October, 2001 we weren’t only colleagues, we were close friends. There are obvious commonalities like we’re only two months apart in age, both Type-A overachievers with plenty of pride and no fewer opinions, driven by perhaps a tad too much perfectionism. She’s finally a full-time employee but we never worked together in the association’s Merchandise Mart offices in Chicago when the association and I were located there.

From the moment we met we did and said silly stuff, laughed out loud a disproportionate number of times, although we are also good kvetchers. Still, we were very conscientious about our jobs, often disagreeing about certain aspects, but it never got in the way of our friendship. In the best of those times, I’d tell her she was full of it; she’d tell me I was overflowing in it. Then she’d do things like hang the phone up, call Jeannie the office manager and have her hide all my pens or create a crisis for Jeannie to deliver to me with an Academy Award-worthy performance, to which I’d respond by telling her to tell Jill she doesn’t need to earn a PhD, she needs to see one. In more serious times, our clashes might last a day or two, but we couldn’t sustain an argument too long. We’d disagree, sometimes loudly, get over it and stay over it. We’d always find some compromise and whatever the issue, it was never brought up again. Nothing was as important as our friendship. Six years flew by, we worked as hard as we played, and we’re still very proud of that.

There’d also been plenty of opportunity for colleagues, committee and Board members to pit us against each other when we worked together and even after I left. We saw many attempts, but they could never succeed although we’d never discussed such an “agreement,” for lack of a better term. We cared too much about each other, we had too much fun together. In hindsight, our closeness seems remarkable because we were two of only six permanent employees then, her being one of two part-timers and the only virtual one, living in an area as rural and distant as Chicago is urban and eclectic.

Then I left the association, abruptly. We spoke occasionally but not about work. She knew something went wrong. I know she heard all kinds of absurd stories just as surely as I know she gave them no weight because they weren’t words coming from me. We’d heard plenty of dirt on each other over the years but never once chose to acknowledge it. Although unsaid, we weren’t willing to ruin what we had by letting negative get between us.

It’s hard to stay connected when miles apart and gripped in details of separate lives. Except for an occasional Facebook post, text message or brief call where we still managed to laugh and disagree as if we’d never missed a day, we remained out of touch for over five years. And until we sat on the beach last Sunday, she didn’t know any “why’s.” In between laughing out loud about old pranks and goofy colleagues, I told her some of them. I’d been hit in a head-on car collision; our family had to sell our home because like others the Great Recession struck us hard, and some other unpleasantries. I explained they weren’t things I could talk about over the phone or through email, but I didn’t even need to say that. She’d never been mad that we weren’t talking, she just didn’t know why.

During the short time we spent discussing it, I saw something that until that moment I thought one could only feel: empathy. The way she listened, the tilt of her head, her few but well-chosen questions, the different tone in which she spoke―it struck me harder than the summer sun and gin and tonic. Those tough times paled compared to the care radiating from her as spontaneously as the waves lapping onto the beach and the sun beating down on the lakefront. Let me be clear: it wasn’t sappy. She doesn’t do sappy and doesn’t accept it from others. She was hearing information she’d long wondered about and would only acknowledge from her friend, and despite her Jersey cool, her concern was palpable. We didn’t dwell on any of it; we picked right back up where we left off, teasing each other, acting nowhere near our age (which I tried to reduce and for some reason she stopped me before I could even finish the logic, though I’d been certain she’d appreciate it).

What is relevant is not talking for at least five years and then picking up where we
left off. Dissecting “why” and “what happened” also were never part of any “agreement.” We’re friends. We respect each other even when we disagree. Even when years fly by. Even when others try to interfere. Last Sunday I not only felt but I saw the blessings of friendship, the love that comes from two people who genuinely care and respect each other. I will always love her, and I know that’s mutual. But not in a sappy way, Jill’s from Jersey.

There are countless hugely frightening and equally irrelevant issues dividing out country, political parties and families every day. But not knowing when we’ll see each other again or even talk, aside from a few silly give and takes on Facebook, can’t disconnect my friend Jill and me. Those issues simply aren’t part of our definition of friendship, love, empathy.

What an enlightening observation for me. People who really care about one another without agenda or condition are a rare and wonderful gift. That tenderness is unrelated to one’s religious belief, culture, age, politics, even blood lines, much to my surprise. Real friendship and love mean laughing at the beach, remembering each other’s best moments, and feeling only sadness about the bad ones. Tallying them to use against each other never once a consideration.

Thanks, Jill, for reminding me about what really counts. Yeah, I know―Mullholand-1, Stone-0. I’m grateful I’ve got a lifetime to keep up that rivalry, a lesson I needed to understand at that moment more than I can say. But that’s what makes these kinds of relationships special, right? Ok, maybe too sappy, but it’s the truth, and I’m prepared for the fallout because I know whatever her reaction, it’ll never, ever be one that would make me feel bad or sad. Is there a greater gift?

Truth: the great equalizer in creative nonfiction & life

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In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.

I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.

Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.

Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.

Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.

Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.

Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”

There’s a lot at stake.