“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”
Annie Dillard opened her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with that last paragraph, a compelling and literally visceral image. It was the first paragraph of hers I ever read, excerpted in a review in some edition of The Whole Earth Catalog or other back almost thirty years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only person who felt motivated — even at the tender age of fourteen — to keep reading, based on nothing more than that image.
A few years back, Dillard admitted that she had borrowed the image from one of her former graduate students, with that person’s consent. The cat wasn’t hers, the breasts covered in bloody cat prints belonged to someone else.
What does the writer owe her audience? It is not possible to portray accurately and fully, in words,even something so small and simple as a grain of sand. You need to leave something out. The writer’s task is to determine what to include, and which of many disparate elements to leave out of any essay. To wit: I pulled weeds in my garden the other day, having forsaken the hoe. The rains had loosened the soil enough that I might kill whole weeds rather than chopping them off to regrow. About the twentieth pull dislodged a salamander, an Ensatina, stunned at the sudden light.
To tell this story do I mention the species of weed grasses I pulled? The fact that I weeded preparatory to planting red-flowering verbascums, or that I took pains not to harm the irises already showing six inches of leaf above the soil, or that the shed behind me is only partly painted? I foreshortened maybe twenty minutes of weeding into two sentences, and then a sudden second of amphibian takes up half that time in the text. It’s a process of selection: determining (first) the story I want to tell and (second) which elements of the story must be told. The readers will tire of every story from my back yard starting in the Miocene deep sea trench from which came the bedrock under my house. The classic admonition is to write one tenth of what you know: I think that’s too loose.
But those sins, if sins they be, are sins of omission. Pilgrim is billed as a work of non-fiction, but the very first sentence contains a declaration that is not, in fact, true. As CL Rawlins pointed out in an article in Northern Light a few years back, if Dillard had written that not a tomcat but an actual person leapt in through her window and kneaded her flesh with bloody hands, she’d be facing a lawsuit.
Rawlins also takes Ed Abbey to task in that essay over his writing of Desert Solitaire — written while married with a small child. To me, the example of Abbey is closer to the All-Encompassing Gray Area of doubt. Reading some chapters of DS one has the impression that no one else is there with Abbey in his trailer at Arches, while in fact Rita and Joshua Abbey spent some weeks there with him. And then there’s the title.
But much of my writing takes place with Becky nearby, and I don’t always mention her. I can imagine writing an essay based on a trip we’ve taken together and editing out, for reasons of emphasis or style, any mention of her presence. It’s even easier for me to imagine curmudegonly Abbey doing this. And that title wasn’t Abbey’s doing. His working title was Desert Solecisms, and a book editor objected.
Still and all, it makes me itch. Rawlins has his own advice to the natural history writer, from his website:
The most important part of natural history or nature writing is to be true to what you write about. First, it means being accurate about how things look and act, and giving the best possible account to your readers, regardless of whether you’re a scientist or a poet. Second, it means being emotionally honest, for instance not claiming to be a hero if you were really scared. Since nature isn’t always a fast-action drama, you can learn to write about what happens in a way that makes it interesting. This is called style.
Nothing in there about claiming to have owned someone else’s cat.
The thing that frosts me about Dillard’s cat is not that some other people have different ideas of appropriate standards for truth in writing about nature — or about anything for that matter. It’s this: I told the salamander I needed to move him to a safer spot, away from my clumsy weed pulling. After a moment’s hesitation, he crawled into my outstretched palm and looked at me, as if expectantly. I moved him a few feet to a hole at the base of the cherry tree. A few minutes later, I worried I hadn’t put him in a safe enough spot: I picked up the weeds I’d lain over him, placed my gloved hand knuckles down on the soil, and he climbed into my palm once again. A life lived open to the world holds more moments like this than could fit into any library. What need is there to embellish or enhance? What need is there — not to put too fine a point on it — to lie? Why chop clumsily with that dull hoe when the stories lift themselves out of the ground by the roots, or walk into your open hands of their own accord?