AGNI: Your essay “Smithereens” (in Issue 82) suggests that solving mysteries can actually be dangerous. As you point out, if the painting Lady in a Fur Wrap is shown to be the work of someone other than El Greco, the discovery could deal a significant blow to Glasgow, the proud home of that painting. Similarly, your research in putting “Smithereens” together led you by accident to some potentially unsettling intimations about your family. Is this emblematic of risks generally involved in writing creative non-fiction? If creative non-fiction often seeks to plumb mysteries, how do you deal with the danger that you might discover too much?
McCallum-Smith: Is it possible to discover ‘too much’ about anything? As a human being, let alone a writer? I doubt it. Surely, the unexamined life, both public and private, is more hazardous.
My opinion, I know, comes from a position of deep privilege; I’m not an investigative journalist treading on powerful toes and my style tends to be reflective rather than provocative. Further, I live in a country that won’t flog me for my words, and, given I’m white, what I write will probably be granted more credence than it deserves. It’s true I’m not a man, but you can’t have everything. Nevertheless personal essays do deal with pretty incendiary material—namely, the human condition—therefore some discoveries have caused a pang in my heart. But uncovering something and writing about it are two different acts, so the danger of non-fiction is not that I might discover too much but that my decisions to reveal or not to reveal what I find are taken for the wrong reasons.
Some discoveries are not mine to share. Prattling on about artistic integrity and freedom of speech doesn’t negate my responsibility to other people, especially to those dearest to me, but neither can I withhold nor massage pertinent information that reflects badly on myself, or my community. An opposite danger mistakes sensational revelations for profundity: Auntie Ethel had erotic encounters with sheep! I’m an alcoholic / manic-depressive / anorexic / nymphomaniac, and here, in gratuitous detail, is my every degradation! Such click-bait sound and fury can deafen readers to the critical question: what does this actually signify?
(As for facts versus truthiness, that’s a minefield beyond the scope of this post, though choosing the latter over the former is, perhaps, the greatest danger to non-fiction of all.)
First versions of “Smithereens” bore the title “Attribution.” I thought my subject was mistaken authorship, and it was, but also…well, it wasn’t. It’s normal—embarrassingly—for me to be convinced in early drafts that I’m writing about this before realizing I’m actually writing about that. I write to discover what I didn’t know I didn’t know, juggling a lot of seemingly disparate material, intuiting its connective tissue long before I can articulate precisely what it is—like a suppressed memory I can taste in my mouth. While slogging over an nth draft of “Smithereens,” I recalled an incident from my late teens (almost three decades ago) that chilled me with shame at my desk. I realized my subject was a specific kind of attribution: class. Problem was, I didn’t want to write about class. Danger is too melodramatic a term to describe my feelings; discomfort is better, and discomfort often divines the through-line of the work, unfortunately, because feeling uneasy always gets my attention.
Those small disquiets that I’m tempted to stifle (Hells bells! Don’t want to go there!) often flag an essay’s spine, given they are frequently emblematic of larger phenomena, deeper angsts. Superficial fears, such as worrying about who painted what, or who had an affair with whom don’t interest me—well, they do, but only on a superficial level—as much as why it should matter to me, or to the culture at large, who painted what, or who slept with whom, or whether a woman depicted in a portrait was royalty or commoner. Revelations, too, about family history don’t bother me. Although the thought of my mother being the subject of gossip was upsetting, the fact of it, together with my reluctance to pursue it, was too important not to disclose, plus, in craft terms, it closed a loop on the central role that the steamie (laundry) played in women’s lives. (Note, though, I wouldn’t have written about her had she still been alive.) Notions of provenance, bloodlines, social groupings, intrigue me, and to which gender, race, class we are attributed, because our response to attributions so often stems from concepts of the ‘other.’
(It’s only now I realize that my first essay published by AGNI, “Able and Baker,” also dealt with fear. Years ago when my husband I were considering adoption, I sensed all sorts of conflicting emotions between my mentioning our plans and some people’s responses. Adoption triggered anxieties, some of which were grounded in attributions: Whose child is this? To which tribe does she belong? Is she one of ‘us’?)
Juicy matter associated with the human condition tends to slither into the gap between action and reaction; between you punching me in the face and me punching (or not punching) you back, between a terrorist atrocity and a culture’s response. And fear, often under the guise of hate, plugs that gap quicker than love and spreads faster; it is more akin to contagion, overriding common sense, muffling decency, and distorting proportions. The writer’s job, I think, is to mistrust—to question—our reflexes. While the world goes to hell in a handbasket, the page provides a safe space to address difficult, even dangerous, material, as long as we write with rigorous reflection and without histrionics; books offer solace by journeying through something contentious, not around it. “I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture,” wrote Don DeLillo in White Noise, “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” As writers, we need to take that territory back.
Susan McCallum-Smith’s story collection Slipping the Moorings was published in 2009, and her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Southern Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Dublin Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has received a Pushcart Prize, a NEA fellowship in fiction, and the 2014 Walter Sullivan Prize from The Sewanee Review. Recently she returned to live in her native Scotland. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.