In a creative nonfiction workshop I recently facilitated, the piece up for discussion was a personal essay about the culture of silence that the writer’s religious background fostered. Her culture’s premium on silence kept her from speaking out during years of sexual abuse. Even as it portrayed the narrator’s gradual, uphill struggle to speak out and name names, the essay, deftly subtle and brilliantly understated, never directly identified the exact nature of the abuse or named the perpetrator. It ended with the narrator on the verge of going public, but never told the reader exactly what she said.
Fellow workshoppers in this group of gifted and savvy writers said they appreciated the “non-judgmental” and “unbiased” tone. Even more, they praised the piece’s subtlety, restraint, and use of indirection; the way it practiced “show, don’t tell”; the way it let the misogyny of the religion “speak for itself”; the way it didn’t “accuse the church of hypocrisy” but rather showed the hypocrisy through telling details; and the way it subtly pointed to, while still concealing, the abuse, rather than naming it outright. When, as facilitator of the workshop, I asked the group to explain their praise for this choice of silence, and asked what would be gained and lost if the narrator were to end in an act of speech rather than silence, many members felt the piece would be “ruined” if it showed the narrator actually speaking directly about her abuse.
In truth, as the creative side of me understands, they were right. It’s even something of a cliché, at this point in creative writing pedagogy, to praise silence for speaking. The prevailing aesthetic of our day takes “show, don’t tell” to an extreme, relative to other eras. Underlying this aesthetic is Hemingway’s famed “Iceberg Theory” (or “theory of omission”). Like an iceberg, a story need only show one-eighth of its meaning and affect; the other seven-eighths can be omitted if the reader “will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Hemingway offered this model against a backdrop of late Victorian verbosity, expository indulgences, and sentimental flourishes. Back then, short was shocking, even anti-establishment. That’s no longer the backdrop of our era. Now, the backdrop avoids not just flourishes but sentiment, and what’s to be omitted is not just descriptions of affect—“a feeling of those things”—but affect, or feeling, itself. In terms of sentiment as well as interpretive commentary, we’ve gone from minimalism to austerity, from omission to concealment. We’re so down on exposition that it’s beginning to feel a bit like repression. We practice an aesthetic of concealment.
It makes a kind of sense that such an aesthetic would be produced by a culture of concealment—which the essay being workshopped showed to be pervasive. But that essay also showed a culture of concealment to be the problem. One member of the group noted this quandary; she found it ironic that a piece “that is so much about silencing a person” worked “to silence its own central figure.” But the discussion stayed at the level of seeing it as an interesting irony rather than a fundamental contradiction in our culture, and a contradiction that, if pursued, could have radical implications concerning the cultural work that creative writing is actually doing.
Of course a workshop is not the place to explore—to workshop—an entire aesthetic. The creative writer part of me may understand this, but the cultural critic in me is uneasy. If the hypocrisy of the church’s culture speaks for itself, then why haven’t we heard it? If the misogyny, when shown, is so self-evident, then why haven’t we been able to see it? Why could the narrator herself not see what the readers supposedly can? I understand that the selection and arrangement of details in an essay can make more visible (even defamiliarize) what is otherwise too normalized to be seen. Even so, I suspect, there are limits to showing; some things need to be told outright. “Show, don’t tell” may be a cliché, a given, but the cultural critic in me believes that anything so cliché it’s almost dogma, anything so obvious it’s beyond question, is, for that very reason, worth questioning and challenging.
As a cultural critic, I’ve been attuned to the ways that seemingly neutral aesthetic values are always ideologically invested, even—or especially—when they most seem to be neutral or benign, or even universal and inevitable. It’s this illusion of unbiased aesthetics that leftist critics have long challenged. There’s a tradition in Marxist criticism to look for contradictions. “Contradictions are our hope!” Bertolt Brecht has written; contradictions allow us to see ideology showing through. What does it mean when our era’s aesthetic values silence marginalized people just as they’re coming into voice? When, once they break through the pressures of their culture to remain silenced, they are re-silenced by our standards of good writing? Are these standards really so universal? Is our bias against bias, and against speaking directly and naming names, really an inevitable truth? Or does it just seem that way to those of us who buy into this bias?
I have to wonder just whom our aesthetics are serving. It’s not the people struggling to overcome silence and innuendo and subterfuge, and to speak truth directly to power. All of that is bad aesthetically. Indeed, I wonder if it’s more than mere coincidence that the very rise of minimalism emerged just as formerly silenced groups started speaking out.
It’s also hard not to notice that this bias against bias and against direct speech has a gendered component to it. Conventionally, women have been seen as the talkative, chatty, emotional gender. Men are active, women passive. Men are objective, women sentimental and subjective. Men—real men—are strong and silent. In other words, men show, women tell. Men are minimalists, women are guilty of the dreaded sins of excess and sentimentality. The rise in minimalism and extreme austerity that began in the 1960s and 1970s—and whose legacy remains whenever we say that good writing is “lean and muscular” and that “flabby” writing is inferior—arose at a time when women began not only to challenge these stereotypes but also to transvalue them and to embrace “women’s writing.” In that first flush of second-wave feminism, women not only showed that they could write like men, but also celebrated those traits formerly so maligned as feminine. Along with women, other formerly silenced groups—African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ people—began telling their stories and speaking out directly against their cultural disempowerment (rather than letting it speak for itself) only to be met with a more subtle kind of silencing. Academia, anyway, was pretty quick to dismiss the notion of “coming into voice” as naïve and amateurish. This seems to me to extend beyond irony into contradiction.
I understand that creative writing is not activism, nor even cultural criticism, and that they’re all very different disciplines. But the stakes for the future of creative nonfiction are high.
This conundrum hits me with extra force now because we’re at a moment when creative nonfiction is being re-classified as a sub-set of creative writing. At Colorado State University, where I teach, creative nonfiction may be shifting from an MA program to an MFA program, and this MFA-ization bears radical implications.
Creative nonfiction has, until recently, been slotted somewhere between creative writing and cultural criticism (and sometimes activism), rather than as a subset of creative writing. In cultural criticism, and in other kinds of nonfiction writing, “telling” is valued. Showing with examples is helpful, but what matters even more is clear, strong exposition that names, explains, and analyzes a phenomenon. Drawing on this tradition as well as on creative writing traditions, creative nonfiction has valued aesthetics, but not exclusively or even primarily.
It has been balanced midway between aesthetic object (work of art) and action (speaking out, raising consciousness, calling “common sense” to account). As we tip toward CNF as aesthetic object, I worry about what will be lost, and what we’ll discourage young writers from saying. All of which is to say that as CNF increasingly becomes a genre within creative writing, it may be time to workshop the genre itself, and to ensure that it fulfills all of its potentials.
If I sound prescriptive here, then I wish I knew what was being prescribed. Actually, I’m genuinely confused. I came to creative nonfiction after years of working as a cultural critic. In the last several years, I’ve been struggling to reconcile the aesthetics of creative writing with the ethics of cultural criticism. There are times when reconciliation seems unachievable. I don’t want that to be true.
In the case of that brilliant essay whose workshop I facilitated, I do recognize that the writer’s writing a piece about not speaking is itself an act of speaking, and that her exposing a culture of concealment may be as important an act as exposing what is concealed. But I also want there to be a place in CNF for refusing silence; for naming names and telling it like it is; for raising consciousness; for evaluating the whole iceberg to see if what’s under the tip really matches what we imagined; and for stating the counter-intuitive, un-imaginable messages that the iceberg might presage. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. But sometimes it doesn’t.
Deborah Thompson is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop the new master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction. She has published creative essays in venues such as Briar Cliff, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Passages North, and Upstreet.