Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Nicholas Dighiera’s nonfiction piece, Whiskeytown, California
John: I love how honestly you tell this story. It sounds like a difficult thing to experience—was it also difficult to write? And what is your approach to depicting moments like this? Do you think nonfiction is more difficult than fiction in this way?
Nicholas: The most difficult part about writing these stories (as there are about ten others from that summer) was figuring out how to write nonfiction, for me. Up to that point, I was a fiction writer and I struggled with the idea of fact vs fiction. It wasn’t until I recognized that if I told these in first person, present tense, that I could leverage my surroundings, my actions, my intentions, my failures; that I could write them as factually as I could with regard to my experience because, for me, the tense and POV had a more visceral well to pull from. So are they objective fact? No. But at that time and place they are my facts.
My approach to depicting moments like this is to tell the truth. When I was getting to the point where I felt like I should restrain myself such that the reader might not judge me for my actions, I said fuck that. Write it as it happened. Write your shame. Write your faults. Write all the things you know you say to yourself while this shit is happening, the shit that should stop the derailment but doesn’t. Write the truth. And nonfiction and fiction are the same for this reason. Whether someone is writing the truth about their story or the truth about a fictional story, both have to be true. Agendas cut that truth down. Authorial intent cuts that truth down. But truth, it sings it’s glorious song of no villains and no heroes, just trying, and adhering to that is the best a writer can do.
If we don’t do the hard work of learning to swim, we drown. Can we generalize this metaphor? Does the secret to life lie in learning to negotiate these difficult moments?
I am barely a human being so I cannot address the secret of life. I feel like you aren’t failing if you are trying to do the hard shit. Always. Do the work. Don’t shirk. Apologize when you do. Be better. Push forward. More pain. More punishment. Carry as much weight as possible. Then carry more. Do the hard shit.
Is it true that the things that don’t kill us make us stronger, or is that just a line of bullshit we use to help us stagger through the day?
That’s a line that people say when they either 1) are doing painful shit that they would rather die than do, but are trying to motivate themselves such that they can get through it or 2) are trying to sound machismo and, subsequently, dumb. There are no shortcuts. No lines. No nothing. Work fucking harder, all the time, don’t concern yourself with the performance of others (if you can help it). Don’t pat yourself on the back too much just because you did a hard thing once or more than once. Don’t make up lines that encapsulated how you got through a thing and expect it works for any other human. Just keep your head down and work. And proceed in this manner until you grind yourself to dust.
In the final analysis, can we really save anyone from anything? We can take our children to the lake, but the decision to learn to swim is entirely theirs. What are we to do with this knowledge?
I would love to say that I can save my children from something. I don’t know if that’s possible, though, the saving. But if I really latched onto that idea, that it wasn’t possible, what’s the point of even trying? Because I think trying is what saves them, if anything does. It’s not them learning how to swim, it’s that you tried to teach them even when they failed and didn’t want to. It’s not whether their room is clean, it’s that you tried over and over to get them to understand it needed to be clean because there is work to be done they are going to do it. It’s not how many times you yelled at them for pissing their pants, it’s that you continued to show up no matter how much they failed. And, more importantly, how much you failed. Because everyone fails. All of us. Fuck, do I fail. It’s the trying that, hopefully, they see. Or that we see, and that’s the shit that might save them.