Finding Art in Artifacts

For most of my writing career, I have stuck primarily to fiction. It’s my specialty; the genre of which I let my imagination roam. There’s nothing more thrilling to me than reading and/or writing a science fiction or fantasy story. I get swept up in a fantastic world and escape from my own problems for a while.

When I first became a writer, I had a negative attitude towards nonfiction. It was all boring and mundane in my mind. Why read a memoir when I could go on an adventure with a boy wizard and his friends? Quite recently however, my attitude towards nonfiction has changed. It’s more than just a record of someone’s life; it’s a reflection or an introspective into the writer’s soul. A memoir or any nonfiction piece operates like fiction but speaks to a deeper human truth. To build off of what Alfred Hitchcock once said, “[Nonfiction] is life with the dull bits cut out.”

After reading stories like “The Falling Man” and “The Source of All Things,” I have come to realize that there is art in nonfiction. Both of these pieces use archives to tell their story. Archives could be many things–people, places, photographs, etc. Anyone could conduct research; it takes a skilled writer to weave the threads into a compelling story. I don’t think I could ever confront my past the way Tracy Ross did in “The Source of All Things.” Although I am lucky to have never experienced the abuse she endured, reliving something as horrific as that for the sake of art is something I could never do. That’s takes courage, and although I possess many virtues, courage is one I unfortunately lack. I commend Ross’ writing. She told the story in a way that came off as fictional.

In “The Falling Man,” Tom Junod used a more concrete archive to tell his story–the chilling photo of a man’s swan dive to death from the top of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 20o1. The picture sparked a mystery that has no clear resolution. We can speculate all we want about the identity of the falling man, but he will forever remain an enigma. Junod paints a colorful picture of the man, morphing him into a legend. The end of his article is pure magic:

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky — falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame — the Falling Man — became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.

This kind of writing is pure art. Who would have thought that a simple photograph of a tragic day could produce such delicious and vivid language. There are fiction writers today who would kill to write this well.

I don’t think nonfiction is for everyone. We all have our own comfort zones. As I embark on my semester long research project, I will keep in mind that great stories–tales that stand the test of time–don’t only come from a writer’s imagination. They are all around us, in the people we meet and the things we touch. We just have to recognize them.

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