How Creative-Non-Fiction can help us reach beyond the easy superficiality of capitalism, consumerism, and the insincere self.
It’s everywhere these days, even if you can’t see it. It’s there, believe me. Oozing from the fissures between your screens. Wafting over you as you as you walk down the road, passing under billboards and shop signs. You may already suspect the stink of your newspaper, or the rankness of those glossy magazines. You may be smelling it right now, as you read this.
I’m talking, of course, about bullshit.
I don’t mean harmless bullshit of the kind that people share the world over – the innocuous half-truths and total fabrications we all enjoy when in relaxed and non-judgemental company. In fact, I would say that this breed of bullshit is part of the essential social sludge that makes humans so excellent at working together. There’s just no way we’d be such a successful species if we could not lie blatantly and tenderly to each other’s faces, every now and then.
No, I’m talking about a different kind of bullshit. I’m thinking in particular about that deliberate, sit down and make a mood-board kind of bullshit. You know the kind. Agenda-driven bullshit. Bullshit with intentions. Bullshit with teeth.
This secondary bullshit differs from the first because it seeks to take something from you without your consent or – much more sinister – your knowledge. It has a cost. Even if that cost is just time, or the energy it takes to read a slogan. More often, of course, the cost is money, and the illusion of fulfilment and happiness – if only you could afford better storage solutions!
But I’m not just talking about advertising, or commercialism, or clever excuses to buy things. I’m talking about our bodies, our skin and hair. We are fed products which translate, in their essence, to bullshit. We drink it by the bucketload. Every day we rub bullshit into our scalps, our skins and the tips of our fingers. I’m also talking, more distantly, about psychology. We live our lives through the stories we are told. The brain and the heart are bound through narrative. And yet, the majority of stories our society tells us are – well, you guessed it. Bullshit.
Stories about boys always being muscled heroes, girls always being brittle princesses. Stories about monsters always being bad (monsters are almost never as bad as those who slay them). Stories about conquest and thriving and endless upward thrust. All very phallic, quotidian and unimpressive, and yet infinitely harmful to our society and our culture.
And this is where CNF comes in.
Creative-non-fiction is different from other factual writing (such as journalism or academia) because it uses the same muscles and mechanisms that fiction does. It curls real life into the shape of stories, and as it does, it imparts truth. It gives you feeling, experience and ideas all wound together, and from these things we gather a closeness. A humanity.
Very importantly, it asks for nothing in return. Sure, you need to read it, and commit to the words, but it won’t demand your loyalty like a bank advert, or nudge you toward pretty deceits that feed your ego. Quite the opposite. Most good CNF is ugly. Ugly with the wrinkles and the blemishes of a one dull day that follows another. Ugly with an exceptional normality. Ugly with honesty.
Good art, I’ve always thought, is an unveiling. A lifting of the shroud to reveal the face beneath. Often that face will belong to a loved one, or a trauma, or a resurrected self you thought long since forgotten (this is why CNF comes with more trigger warnings than any other genre). And this unveiling is what makes us gasp. It fills us, like good food or good company, with that lifting feeling. Call it happiness, if you like. But not happiness of the easy kind. Not the kind that allegedly comes free with a mortgage or the latest insurance policy. The other kind. The real kind.
Honesty is the greatest tool we have in war against bullshit. And it’s a war we fight every day, on all sides – from politics to pleasure, from Hollywood to Disney. But it’s not even a war really. It is a natural disaster. A flood that we’re wading through with our trousers hitched up. Or an avalanche, that we need to dig ourselves out of.
Activists and scientists talk a lot about the Anthropocene and the age of plastic, how our addition to stuff is choking the seas and hollowing the earth (for further cheerful reading, check out George Monbiot’s upcoming talk Dying from Consumption), but I prefer to see the situation in blunter terms. The sad truth is that it’s not about plastic, or government policy, or individual selfishness – all of these things can be forces for good in the right environment. No, it’s about bullshit.
I believe that if we, and everyone we know and everyone we should ever meet, just had the time, and the courage and the kindness to be honest – with themselves and each other, then things would be far less shit. I’m not saying it would cure world poverty or end war, but it might make us question a little bit more, why these things exist. And how do we get there? How do we reach that state of halcyon honesty throughout the world?
Well, reading a bit of CNF is a pretty good start.