I recently received in the mail a boxed set of DVDs—The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The series came from a friend who said I had to watch it, and I should do so soon because there were a lot of people waiting for their turn. I walked daily past the box with its faces of Eleanor (young, sad, beseeching), Franklin (smiling charmingly at someone off-camera), and Theodore (staring at me with reproach). I had watched, years ago, Ken Burns’ first documentary masterpiece, The Civil War, and wasn’t looking forward to another long spell with talking heads and archival photographs; with fiddles and fifes forever. But Teddy’s glare was relentless. So I watched. And I was enthralled. The story itself was compelling, but surely no equal to that of the Civil War: why was I caught up in one series more than the other? The difference, I figured, was that the Roosevelt story felt more real. Here were people interacting, people revealing themselves not just through words and still, stiff images and disembodied voices, but through expression and action and gesture—people who moved, against backdrops that moved as well. Here was fact, the truth, made lively through the new miracles of film and sound recording. Reality enhanced by artfulness.
Artful has two meanings (according to Oxford Dictionaries)—clever or skillful, typically in a crafty or cunning way; and showing creative skill or taste. Pitting one against the other, they seem essentially the same. Both have to do with skill: one crafty or cunning; the other creative. The gist, it seems to me, is that the “artful” extension of “art” operates through arrangement and selectivity. And when it comes to documentary work, or any kind of nonfiction, which one might expect to stick to the realm of “it is what it is,” artfulness can help the real become more real.
Lori Horvitz, author of the memoir-essay collection The Girls of Usually (Truman State University Press, 2015), writes this issue’s craft session, “Creative Nonfiction and Your Real-Life Stories.” She discusses what makes good nonfiction as well as how to write it for maximum impact. She concludes with this reminder: “We have to tell our stories in imaginative ways, so they’re more than just a story—they’re a piece of art.”
Marie Hefley’s interview of Denise Kiernan, author of the bestselling The Girls of Atomic City, details the author’s careful research and equally careful honing of information to create a dynamic story. “It was hard,” Kiernan says. “I wanted there to be as much of a variety as possible, so I tried to include people from different plants, married, single people, people from other parts of the country, those in houses, dorm, trailers, trying to get as much of a mix as possible.” Kienan’s culling, selection, and “mixing” is—as Ken Burns has demonstrated—artful reality at its best.
For more of this brand of art, see the Nonfiction submissions in this issue, “The Diamond and the Darkie,” by Ann Ceraldi; and “Cast in Sand,” by Carol Clark. See also the poems in this issue—every one of them. After all, poetry may well be the apotheosis of truth made even truer by art. The Reflection essay, “Guests,” comes from Bronwyn Pellatt, The Great Smokies Review intern for 2015. After chronicling the very real difficulties of children of divorce, she ends with a fantasy: “I think of how wonderful it might be to live life backwards.” She goes on to trace her and her brother’s lives from old age to infancy, ending with “We are pure and we are unbruised and we are whole. Finally, we have lived so long that the slight jingle of a set of keys can set us into a fit of giggles; that when our fathers throw us in the air, we feel on top of the world; that we have no concept of words like ‘divorce’ or ‘loneliness’ or ‘broken.’ ” Here is a heartfelt re-arrangement of truth—telling it not only slant, but in reverse—and making it art.