When the Farmer Clutches the Rake: Writing the Real
by Cheryl Strayed
from Post Road 22
The first story I ever wrote featured a talking parrot named Poncho who busted a trio of diamond thieves on a late night train. What a fantastic story! my seventh grade teacher scrawled in red ink on the top of the page. She was right. It is, literally, my most fantastic story to date — my writing in the intervening years swirling ever further from the farfetched and toward the real, if not the mundane. I write fiction. I write nonfiction. I move back and forth across that genre divide, but the real is the thread that joins the two. In my tiny literary universe of one, style supersedes genre at the root. My avian caper aside, my primary ache as a writer is to do as Robert Lowell famously suggested and simply say what happened.
It took me a while to accept this. I feared that what happened was hohum. But I’m the sort of writer who believes that writing is a calling and furthermore that when we’re called to do something we don’t get to be terribly picky about the details.
There was an actual moment during which this became perfectly clear to me. I was in graduate school, taking a fiction workshop taught by George Saunders. There were only four students in the class, so instead of meeting at school, we met in George’s living room, where we reclined in cozy chairs around a coffee table on which sat a very large book that featured reproductions of paintings various artists had made over the past several hundred years. One week George opened up the book and asked idly which of the paintings we each thought most closely represented who we were as writers. We all gathered in to look as he turned the pages, the search on for the one that was “ours,” though — at least speaking for myself — search is not precisely the word. There was nothing lost, then found. When I saw the painting that compelled me to say “that one,” the sensation was more like rounding the final bend on a far-back road and spotting at last the familiar house one knew was there all along.
The painting was a portrait of a farmer so meticulously accurate, so particular and true, it was more vivid than a photograph: the farmer’s pale level gaze, his rough hands clutching a rake, the parched yellow crops in his field. It wasn’t the prettiest picture in the book. It wasn’t the most innovative or outlandish or even, perhaps, the one I’d most like to hang on my wall. But there it was: mine. Something and everything about that image seemed to be lodged in my chest. Looking at it was like gazing into a mirror, my own intentions reflected back to me. It’s the best way I can express what I strive for in both my fiction and my nonfiction: I madly, deeply, honestly want to show you exactly how it looks when the farmer clutches the rake.
This is a long way of saying that the real is my road and the genre is my vehicle. It’s from the standpoint of content and style that I make the decision whether to write a particular story as fiction or nonfiction. The question is always how best to convey what is most true. Will it be the freedom and invention of fiction that shows readers most acutely what I hope they’ll see, or is it the constraint and wondrous specificity of how it really went down? Does the story demand that I mine a character or excavate a life?
There isn’t one answer to these questions for me. I’m often asked if it’s hard to switch back and forth between the two genres, but it would be much harder for me to limit myself to one. Like playing a piano with only one hand, it could be done, but there are keys I’d inevitably find it impossible to reach. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two genres and also a funny paradox, in which each yearns to achieve the greatest effect of the other. When we praise fiction it’s often credibility at the core of our delight: these characters seemed like real people to me is high praise indeed. Nonfiction writers are lauded for something like the opposite. It’s only when they transcend the self, when the real person behind the prose disperses into someone more universal, that the reader feels altered by the life of another.
This isn’t to say I think the two genres are the same. Writers who assert there isn’t much of a difference between fiction and literary nonfiction baffle me. In my mind the line is clear and bright: on one side you can write whatever you want; on the other side you can write whatever you want without making shit up.
The not making up of shit is the magic dust of nonfiction. It won’t do your work for you — even if you’ve had an incredible life, your writing could easily be crap — but if you hone your craft and find your story and figure out what it means and write it well (which is to say without fear, even if you’re frankly terrified), the fact that you didn’t make this shit up is capable of blowing your readers minds into smithereens.
That power is also the reason they’ll want to sue you if they later learn you lied.
I write nonfiction when I think the story I have to tell would be best told through the thinnest possible screen. There really isn’t anything like the author standing right before the reader saying this happened to me. And there’s nothing like it’s opposite either — when the writer is free to manipulate the possibilities of action and interaction and plot, as one can do in fiction, and therefore set the intimate on the grandest possible stage. Can the self tell the biggest story? is a question I ask a lot when I’ve opted to write something as nonfiction. Sometimes the answer is no, other times yes. Sometimes it’s both.
The biggest story of my own life so far, the one that’s obsessed me as a writer, is the death of my mother at age forty-five. Turns out, my grief is more enormous than any one genre can contain. I wrote about it fictionally first, in my novel Torch, because I had a story of loss to tell that wasn’t just mine. And then I wrote it about nonfictionally, in my essays and memoir Wild, because I had things to say about love and sorrow and healing that so breathtakingly belonged to me I couldn’t possibly locate them in someone else.
I’m working for something slightly different in each genre, but in each I plow the same field. This is what I mean when I say I write the real instead of I write fiction or nonfiction. I’ll do whatever it takes to transform the paint into a guy standing in a yellow field with a rake.