What Can We Steal From Lise Funderburg’s “The Dilettante’s Devotional”?
Title of Work and its Form: “The Dilettante’s Devotional,” short story
Author: Lise Funderburg (on Twitter @LiseFunderburg)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece appears in the debut issue of Cleaver Magazine, a very promising online journal. You can view the piece here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Intellectual Curiosity
This piece of flash describes the narrator’s experience with a box full of stamps that were found in a home bought by an enterprising stepson. The narrator “parties” with the stamps, learning about Polish history. She puts them up for sale on eBay, but no one bites. The little fragments of history (and the unknown soul who collected them) remain with the narrator.
I liked this piece a lot, but I had one small point of confusion: is the piece fiction or nonfiction? The folks at Cleaver define “flash” thus:
FLASH fiction/sudden fiction/micro-fiction/short-short fiction: these are tiny stories that can be read in an instant. Unlike a fragment or vignette, a flash story contains all the elements of a traditional story, but is written with economy, compression, and implication.
On the other hand, I have no trouble believing that the author is the kind of person who is intellectually curious enough to turn an eBay mission into an opportunity for self-education. Many literary journals choose not to list which pieces are fiction and which are nonfiction. There are great arguments for both policies.
Fiction and nonfiction are saddled with their own unique baggage. The first-person piece of creative nonfiction is branded with the responsibility of TRUTH. Now, Ms. Funderburg doesn’t have a very high burden of proof in this story; who wouldn’t believe that she has a stepson and the Internet and thinks a lot? These are not outrageous claims. However, an unclassified first-person story can suffer from the responsibility of TRUTH. Here’s an example:
I’ve stopped lying about the whole mess. Yeah, I killed the man. But you gotta believe me…he deserved it. There’s a very good reason his body is rotting away in Death Valley, and that’s why I’m trusting you with my story.
So if this is nonfiction, the story can FEEL MORE IMPORTANT because the writer is not only confessing murder, but justified murder! Who doesn’t want to hear a crazy true-life story like this? Oh, and if it were nonfiction in the first-person, we might want to call the police if no one else did. Murder is still illegal, right?
And if this is fiction, we don’t have to worry that a person is really dead. But it could be nonfiction? Is it? No one told me. Is it just a story? Here, I’ll check the Contributors’ Notes to see if the writer is in prison for murder. Hmmm…it doesn’t say he’s in jail, so it must be fiction…I dunno. Boy, it’s a tiny bit harder to just enjoy the story because I don’t know for sure!
The audience has expectations based upon whether or not they think the story is true. For whatever reason, some people read “true” stories exclusively, considering fiction “false.” (I once heard a man in a bookstore say just such a thing and it depressed me.) Fiction, conversely, is freed from the bounds of FACTUAL TRUTH to some extent.
These restrictions are not always a bad thing. There’s a reason some films bill themselves as “based on a true story.” The audience sits in the theater with the belief that THIS COULD HAPPEN, even though that’s seldom the case. Consider the way in which you bill your work. What would be the difference in the reader’s experience if you modulate the extent to which he or she should BELIEVE your story. Star Wars, of course, is entirely a work of imagination, but George Lucas was very careful to tell you that the events took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” What does it mean that Star Wars COULD have taken place?
Phew! Let’s think about Ms. Funderburg’s story in earnest. (Although I am grateful that her story made me think so deeply about the nature of truth!) Her story, whether true or not, is called “The Dilettante’s Devotional.” The title makes a powerful admission. Ms. Funderburg admits that, while she is certainly very knowledgeable about a great many things, philately and Polish history are not her strong suits. There is, however, a bright side to dilettantism. Ms. Funderburg’s intellectual curiosity allowed her to share with us what it meant to find a box of moldering stamps. What out-of-the-ordinary experiences will fuel your curiosity?
Creative nonfiction, essentially, is about understanding the meaning of the important parts of your life and using the techniques of fiction to arrive at some higher truth. Finding a bunch of old stamps didn’t change this author’s life, but it did open her to new knowledge and offered her a starting-off point into considering the life of the person who compiled the collection. What a beautiful minor event and how wonderful she shared it with us.
What Should We Steal?
- Manipulate the audience by making use of the traditional elements of genre. “Based on a True Story” will grab people…even if the story’s relationship with the truth is tenuous at best.
- Allow stories to emerge from unexpected places. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…but it doesn’t have to be.
- Treat the events of your life with the importance they deserve. A great day at work may only rate a message on your Facebook Wall. When something odd and beautiful happens to you, make use of it in your writing.