Writing Life: The fact of the matter: Mythology as creative nonfiction by William Henderson

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No matter your opinion about John D’Agata, recently under-fire for his slippery (some might say sloppy) handling of facts in his 2010 book, About a Mountain, the use of innovation (read: fudged facts) in nonfiction – which he argues is his right as the author, especially when helping foster a more artistic truth – created a genre, of sorts, situated between fiction and non, creative nonfiction, which even this magazine uses to define what it publishes every month.

But let’s get one fact straight – creative nonfiction, in this magazine or in others that publish this bastard of a genre, is not how we explain and make peace with the books written by James Frey, J.T. Leroy, Margaret Seltzer, Herman Rosenblat, and Greg Mortenson, among others (so many, that Googling “fake memoir” generates about 3,460,000 results).

And thanks to these books, and others like them – including D’Agata’s book, some say – creative nonfiction gets such a bad rap that more time is spent defining what creative nonfiction is not that what creative nonfiction is gets lost. Not just what creative nonfiction is, but how broadly we can interpret creative nonfiction.

Which is problematic, especially for prose writers who walk that line between fact and fiction. Or, similarly problematic, for fields of scholarship that we might have classified as creative nonfiction if the label had existed, but to which we’ve given other labels, such as mythology.

If mythology is comprised of stories developed to explain who we are and from where we come and the reasons we are here, and if these stories remain relevant centuries later – and I’ll stretch the definition of relevance to include anything that remains part of our current vernacular – then why not label these stories nonfiction?

Song of Achilles coverDo I believe that a god named Zeus (or Thor or Indra or Perun) is responsible for thunder and lightning? No. But I believe that our ancestors, then, needed a way of explaining thunder and lightning – a true and naturally occurring event – and did so with “the use of innovation” (thank you, D’Agata), and I believe that this idea of Zeus (et al.) has remained part of our cultural fabric, and I believe, as does Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles, a first-person retelling of the story of Achilles from the point of view of his lover, Patroclus, that “these stories have endured this long, moving generation after generation of readers [so] they must, still, have something important to tell us about ourselves.”

If you don’t remember Patroclus from what you’ve heard about Achilles, you’re not alone. Patroclus, before his death during the Trojan War, is relegated to hero support in The Iliad. But the reaction of Achilles, whose armor Patroclus is wearing when he is killed, is enough to give modern day scholars pause: If Patroclus is such a minor character, then why does this half-god warrior, this “best of all Greeks,” come completely unglued?

Which is where Miller’s interest began, she said, during a recent interview at a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass., where she and her fiancé live. If so much could be unsaid during the few lines given to the death of Patroclus, then what could be said should be equally as important.

And who better to tell the story of Patroclus than Patroclus, the voice Miller embodies. A memoir of a man relegated to just more than a mytholological footnote. And the memoir of a man struggling to make sense, not just of the part he plays in Achilles’ life, but also the part he plays in Achilles’ heart, which, let’s be honest, is more heel than the heel you probably think about when you think about Achilles. At least when wounded in the heart, death is possible.

Yes, telling someone else’s life story already has a classification, biography, but Song of Achilles is no biography. Miller successfully disappears so that, as you read, or at least as I read, I forgot I was reading a book written by a now-living woman and I lost myself in the story of someone as swept up by fate as was his lover.

Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles. PHOTO CREDIT: Nina Subin

Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles. PHOTO CREDIT: Nina Subin

Step one of telling Patroclus’ story, said Miller, root the more fantastic elements of the story as firmly in reality as possible. Step two, commit – which she did, for 10 years – to the story and make sure not to contradict anything that came before. Step three, figure out the role Patroclus played, in the stories of Achilles, since the role Patroclus played is not acknowledged.

More elaboration and innovation, yes, but elaboration and innovation layered next to the flora and fauna native to that period of time and how ship sails looked and what people ate and how wars were waged, and lost, and won. Truth, skewed, or, if you like, told at a slant.

Step away from ancient Greece and into an issue of Publishers Weekly circa 2009, and you might read about Jeanette Walls, whose The Glass Castle is often required reading in creative nonfiction writing programs. Walls followed up her well-regarded memoir with Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, in which she recreates the story of her grandmother using family interviews, research, and, well, made up parts. In other words, further explaining who and why she is, exposing her personal mythology.

Mythology might be shelved in the fiction section – or in its own section, depending on your bookstore – but would just as easily fit alongside such notable works of creative nonfiction like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Notes of a Native Son; and, perhaps the most famous, or, failing that, the Zeus in the mythology of creative nonfiction, In Cold Blood.

Calling myth fact may be about as sacrilegious as calling religion fiction, at least in some circles, but if Homer’s The Iliad is an attempt at explanation, then Miller’s Song of Achilles is an attempt at elaboration. And true or not, a story well worth a toe or two – but never both heels – dipped in the river Styx. Watch out for Thetis, though; she’s kind of a bitch.

william hendersonWilliam Henderson is a contributing writer to Hippocampus Magazine. He has written a memoir, House of Cards, from which 27 excerpts have appeared in literary journals and magazines. He writes a weekly column for Specter Literary Magazine, Dog-eared, and will be included in two forthcoming anthologies: The Other Man and Stripped. He is a full-time writer, takes care of his two children, and is working on a second book.

Visit William online: http://hendersonhouseofcards.wordpress.com

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