what we write about when we write about war

My current bookshelf is weirdly focused. The collection might seem a bit scary, if you didn’t know I was writing a book. (“What kind of obsessed veteran lives here?”)  When you know, some of what’s here might then seem obvious: David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, Kingston’s Veterans of Peace anthology, the trauma stuff ( Jonathan […]

studying with e.l. doctorow

So when I came across a battered copy of his acclaimed historical fantasia Ragtime, the 1975 book so many of my colleagues at LAGCC used as the spine of entire composition classes, I thought: now’s the time. And like many readers before me, I first ate it up with a spoon, laughing and gaping as people I long knew in other contexts —Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Stanford White (who designed the late lamented Pennsylvania Station) — turned up as full-throated characters. I thought of Tony Kushner’s Ethel when I read of Emma, too – I want to ask him if he did.

And I was jealous, as always, of the ability of fiction writers to create composites, make up dialogue, and weave events whose plots match their themes. Of course, turns out he was jealous himself, as he told the New York Times in 2005: it was 1974, the world was abuzz with New Journalism, and “My feeling was ‘if they want facts, I’ll give ’em facts like they’ve never had before.’ ”

Now, I’m reading the book again, and wondering if there are lessons I can draw from it without crossing over into making shit up (as he acknowledges having done again in The March) or even crossing the line into “creative nonfiction,” a la John Edgar Wideman or Terry Tempest Williams (both of whom my admiration threatens to cross that borderline into worship).