In 2005, I booked the writer Lawrence Weschler as keynote speaker for a conference of university magazine writers and editors. Weschler is a very smart guy, a polymath and author of several fine books, including Boggs, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and Waves Passing in the Night.1 His address did not land well with the audience; it was a bit of an indulgent ramble delivered with little energy. But he said several things that have stuck with me for a good 10 years, including this:
Everything in the world comes about as it is because it had to be that way. The writer’s task is to figure out all the interconnections that made it the only way it could be.
What an ambition for a piece of writing. And what an interesting deterministic view of the universe. (I think he's right about the writer's task, and right about the universe. But I could be wrong.)
Another of Weschler’s points was that all nonfiction writing is fiction:
All narrative voices—but especially the voices in true narratives—are themselves fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it—a division that is roughly contiguous with that between writing that’s worth reading and writing that’s not. Nonfiction texts are fictions in that they deploy the devices of fiction (pacing, modulation of voice, considered sequence of revelation, irony, metaphor, etc.) but even more so in that they are constructs (they’re composed, they’re in-formed and made up).
I think he's right about that, too.
Oh, and that first quote, about the writer's task? It's a paraphrase. Weschler said, in his keynote address, that in all of his many stories for The New Yorker and his books, he never quoted anyone verbatim; instead, he placed within quotation marks what he believed they meant to say, faithful to the meaning if not the exact utterance. He claimed that in all the time he'd been doing this, no one had ever complained about being misquoted.
Years later, I had the chance to bring this up with a fact-checker from The New Yorker. She was taken aback and visibly uncomfortable. Maybe even sorry she'd heard about it only now.
1 The latter book was written about film editor Walter Murch, and featured in my own story about Murch for Johns Hopkins Magazine. You can read that one here.
Lawrence Weschler maintains a website here.