I had a major epiphany the other morning while reading Jan Pogue’s blog. Jan is the publisher behind Vineyard Stories, an independent press that publishes books about Martha’s Vineyard.
The epiphany-inducing blog (which you can read in its entirety here) began like this:
Yesterday, I had conversations (in no particular order, and all by 1 pm) about mosquitoes, goats, zucchini, gravel, lemonade, an artist’s new works, harpooned swordfish, carpet, tonsils, buying big rocks, selling books, organic farmers, the right bone for a dog, fishing, bell ringers, and shipping costs to Nebraska.
Now, if I had that many conversations in the course of a week, I’d suspect that my butterfly mind had kicked into dangerously high gear and probably needed a heavy-duty tranquillizer, but still those all sounded like sensible things to have conversations about, so I was taken aback by the next paragraph, which consisted of a single sentence:
What a small life I am living.
My life is not small. Why did Jan think hers was? This was what followed:
Last week when friends from Connecticut and Atlanta took me to dinner and we were having a fine conversation about some inane thing, one of them suddenly stopped and said, “I can go months without talking about things like this.”
You must be leading a piss-poor life, I thought, and that’s when I had my epiphany. It had to do with big lives and small lives, with the difference between year-round Vineyarders and summer people, and with a hybrid category that’s been gaining influence in the last dozen years or so, what I call the “year-round summer people.” The year-round summer people live here year-round, but they seem to think that real life takes place somewhere else. Big lives, small lives, thought I. Maybe the big-life people don’t recognize Vineyard lives as real lives. Maybe our lives are so small they don’t even see us.
I moved here from Washington, D.C. The D.C. I lived in is not the one you see on the news. The federal government had no more impact on my daily life than it does on the lives of USians in, say, Florida, Nebraska, California, or Massachusetts — with one exception: lots of my friends were employed or had been employed by a federal agency or two or three, as clericals and administrative staff. The news reported by the Washington Post, the Washington Star (which died in 1981), and the Washington Times (founded in 1982 and widely referred to as “the Moonie newspaper”) had very little to do with the D.C. I lived in.
When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, it had been several years since I’d been a daily newspaper reader. The neighborhoods where I lived and worked, the lesbian community, the women in print movement, women’s music, street hassles, the Metro, the sex wars that were blowing grassroots feminism apart: these were real life, big life, whether they ever appeared in the Washington Post or not (they didn’t).
I knew very little about Martha’s Vineyard when I got here, and much of what I thought I knew turned out to be not all that important, but I did know one thing: that Martha’s Vineyard was real life, big life, and that if I wanted to be part of it, I had better pay close attention to what the place had to say for itself.
In the years since, the small place where I live has taught me an astonishing amount about the wider world. Big-life generalizations, however, haven’t taught me much about Martha’s Vineyard. Poets and playwrights, fiction writers and essayists, seem to understand this, that by writing perceptively about the particular, one is writing about the whole world. Journalists, I think, tend not to get it.
==Journalism that explores the background to newsworthy events — that’s different. I think that can do anything fiction can.==
It’s a continuum. Once we pop the surface newsworthy thing, the background takes over. Sometimes the narrative takes it so far back, it becomes fiction.
There, I just defined fiction vs. journalism.
During the meltdown of the former Yugoslavia, an area I knew almost nothing about, I read a lot of U.S. news coverage trying to figure out what was going on. Day after week after month. It just didn’t jell in my head. I’d never had that experience before, of trying to understand a story and not being able to. Finally I got some of what I was looking for from essay-length analysis in mags like the New Yorker. My theory (based on what I’ve learned in theater) is that the reporters and editors didn’t understand what they were writing about, so they were unable to convey a coherent story to their readers.
Now fast-forward a few years to 9/11, which involved areas that I knew quite a bit about: the Arab world, British and French imperialism in the area, Islam, etc. After about three days I couldn’t even look at the papers. They got so much of it so wrong, or just left a lot out. (I hadn’t discovered Robert Fisk yet.) I doubt many people could come to understand what was going on on the basis of newspaper coverage. Sure enough, ten years later the stuff that people think they know — talking about reasonably thoughtful, well-read people here, not those who get all their news and commentary from Fox et al. — is still so inadequate. The total cluelessness about European Christian history makes me tear my hair out — this has more to do with crappy education and religious indoctrination than with journalism, IMO.
I try to read the Vineyard papers with a split-screen mind: one has considerable background in the various newsworthy issues being covered, the other is a total newbie with no history at all. Mostly I don’t think the total newbie could develop an understanding just from reading the papers — though she almost certainly would think she was now well-informed.
Knowing who has the story is half the battle.
Before the commercial demands of mass media pushed “objectivity” as a standard, journalism consisted of correspondence — letters, literally — from the news area told in a chatty, discursive style that framed the events through the writer’s perspective.
Better magazines retain that approach. And they have the right people telling you what they think is going on.
Daily, breaking journalism often fails to tell the story adequately. At times, it does. Depends on who’s doing the reporting.
The best journalism keeps you reading, as does the best fiction. I’ve never defined fiction vs. journalism, but the best novels these days merge the moment and the world.
==Journalists, I think, tend not to get it.==
We try to.
We sometimes think we live in dual worlds — the Big one we report on and the Real one we live in.
The goal is to introduce those worlds to each other, one story at a time.
Been thinking about this a lot — thought about it a lot too when I worked for the M.V. Times. Even at that level (weekly newspaper, very small market) it was a challenge to keep the world being reported on (government doings, longer-term trends, spot news, etc.) integrated with the world I lived in. Features writing and editing (which is what I did) could tell stories in greater detail, but it couldn’t tell them over time. I wanted to cover certain individuals, informal groups, or nonprofits the way town government was covered, over time. That’s what pointed me toward the novel: novels offer a bigger canvas that can incorporate depth, breadth, and chronology better than day-to-day or week-to-week journalism can. (This is also why I call The Mud of the Place a nonfiction writer’s novel!) Journalism that explores the background to newsworthy events — that’s different. I think that can do anything fiction can.
I appreciate writers who can write about the small and big connected: “zero at the bone.” As you have just done.
Big…small…all I know is that my life here on the Vineyard is definitely real and ohh so satisfying!!!
Your last paragraph reminded me of something I once heard in a science lecture: ontogeny recapitulates philogeny (the development of the embryo reflects the development of the whole species). Looking at it from a different angle, we also have “as above, so below” (the science version is probably “the microcosm reflects the macrocosm): just as the planets revolve around the sun, so do electrons revolve around the nuclei of atoms.
I see each person’s life and adventures as a contribution to and a reflection of the All That Is.
Which makes me think of the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s lines that “the universe is made of stories / not of atoms.” Yes.