Wisdom and Wisdom Teeth: Against Relatability
“The human life is individual; it is not unique.”
—Bee Yang, via Kao Kalia Yang
“There are two types of people in the world: them who have and them who will.”
By Karen Babine •
Over the years, my family has developed a theory: utter the words wisdom teeth and anyone within earshot will be compelled to tell you their story. Without fail, the story will fall into one of two categories. Either you’re my mother, who was laid up for a week, or you’re my father, who went back to work the next day. Me, I swelled up so badly that I lost my cheekbones and the ability to make s sounds, so that when I went back to my summer job working at the candy store and customers couldn’t help but ask in horrified tones, What happened to you?, what came out was Withdom teeth. The majority of my personality is delivered in facial expressions, so the lack of them was disconcerting. It makes for a good story, though. A good laugh.
My belief structure as a writer does not hold that story—or the power of story—is the fundamental building block of a page. Instead, I believe the power of the human and the human experience is the foundation, and experience, to my mind, is not the same as story. A story is a finite object, a unit of craft, and it has no forward momentum: it exists in a specific time and place for a specific purpose. We use stories to illustrate, to explain, to provide background, to deepen context. Stories are the flat tire on the road trip, they’re my great-grandfather telling my grandmother as he was walking her down the aisle in 1948, “I give it six months.”
As a nonfiction writer, I am most interested in the craft work of how we turn story into experience, and I’m using both those terms in specific ways: what is the human experience that you want to convey with this page? Are you trying to say something about love, loss, delight, or fear? Where is the writer trying to find the universal in the specific? Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is not about the Aboriginal Songlines in Australia, but an exploration into how we reconcile ourselves to the universe, how we find our way in it, how we create a relationship with the more-than-human world. Gretel Erhlich’s A Match to the Heart is not about being struck by lightning. Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer is not about being a Hmong refugee in St. Paul. When we shift away from story toward experience, we’ve activated the energies that cause connection on the page. I’ve been in search of what should replace relatability in our conversations about the page, to wield our tools with a little more precision to take a text from relatable, to relevant, and if we’re lucky, to work that resonates. If relatable work is a C-major chord, pretty and common and full of sunshine, relevant work slides into the complexity of a diminished fourth. Texts that resonate are what you hum in the morning without even knowing how you know a four-hundred-year-old tune.
Against Relatability: Empathy and Power
I’ve told this story many times: my high school history teacher once told us that there is a color of pink he viscerally cannot stand because it was the color Jackie was wearing when JFK was shot. I’ve mused on this story from many angles over the years, because it’s always seemed important. I know what he means—I can relate—because I have the same feeling in my gut when I encounter the vibrant lemon yellow of the sweater Jacob Wetterling wore in the school photograph they used to try to find him after he was kidnapped in 1989. And yet, I have no idea what Mr. Smith actually feels when he sees that color pink. The truth is that we cannot relate to the experience of another even if we’ve had the same experience. Rebecca Onion writes in “The Awful Emptiness of ‘Relatable’”: “The word bothers me most, I’ve since decided, because it presumes that the speaker’s experiences and tastes are common and normative. ‘Relatable’ is in the eye of the beholder, but its very nature is to represent itself as universal. It’s shorthand that masquerades as description.” Relatability is a shortcut. It flattens the nuance of the human experience on the page. It’s Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s observation in her well-known TED Talk that stereotypes are not bad because they are wrong; it is because they are incomplete.
What’s interesting about cultural touchstones like 9/11 is that on the anniversary, which now numbers multiple decades, most of us have our own 9/11 Story to tell, where we were, how we felt, and it’s impossible for me to not feel the deep windless heat of a Spokane September, three days into my first postcollege apartment, two weeks before I started my MFA and teaching at Eastern Washington University, which was adjacent to Fairchild Air Force Base, and I would have to face teaching students who would be shipped abroad to fight the new War on Terror. These days, my students weren’t even born on 9/11. They can’t relate.
When we say “I can/can’t relate” to this piece of writing, we’re putting ourselves as readers in a position of power over the author and the text. “I don’t care”—I don’t care do u?—is an act of power and often our students wield it deftly. Jen Prokop’s tweet thread on representation is essential reading here. Relatability has more insidious tentacles: Whose stories do we relate to? Whose stories do we value—and what systems do we have in place to value them? When we place actionable value on relating, we’re saying that only perspectives that look like mine, or are adjacent to mine, have worth. When those in positions of editorial power are largely white, cis, and heteronormative, mine will look like theirs. But there’s a craft issue of power at play here too: Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk, writes about trying to empathize with a friend who had just lost her father by saying that she knew how her friend felt. To her surprise, her friend reacted with anger: “‘No, no, no,’ I said, ‘that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.’ And she answered, ‘No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.’” Headlee, then, started to notice how many times she reacted to stories with stories of her own: “What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me” (emphasis mine). Headlee describes sociologist Charles Derber’s work in conversational narcissism and the two kinds of responses we often use in conversations with others: “a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment.” Relatable work demands the same shift response. It shifts our response to ourselves and our ability as readers to connect with an author, rather than the author doing the work on the page to ensure that connection happens. It’s wisdom teeth: in telling the story, the listener is weirdly compelled to recount their own tale instead of focusing on the person telling the story in the first place.
Part of this move away from relatability is teaching students that they don’t have to write about their lives, or the worst thing that has ever happened to them. It’s important to teach beginning nonfiction writers that it’s okay if you don’t want to write about the ways your life has been hard. You are never required to bleed on the page, I tell them. Readers are not entitled to any more of you than you’re willing to give them. I am often shocked by the relief on their faces, even as they wonder, What else is there to write about?
Writing from Your Life: The Craft of Relevance
One of my foundational mantras is to write from your life, not about your life. If you write about your life, your subject matter is limited to the length of days you have been on this earth. If you write from your life, if you use your life as the lens through which you view the world, you have, in the words of the brilliant Alexander Smith, in his marvelous “On the Writing of Essays”:
…no lack of subject-matter. [You have] the day that is passing over [your] head; and, if unsatisfied with that, [you have] the world’s six thousand years to depasture [your] gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.
Relevance, then, shifts story from an object into the perspective and lens of experience, and such is a necessary shift. I can relate to nothing in the content of Julija Sukys’ Siberian Exile—neither her Lithuanian grandmother arrested and exiled to Siberia for twenty-five years, nor her grandfather responsible for mass murder. If one goal of nonfiction is to illuminate something elementally, fundamentally, universally human—not just singularly human—is that being done on the page, and how?
The craft of exposition, of reflection and perspective, is what takes relatable work and makes it relevant. What are the outside forces that are acting on the narrator and where can we see that actively pursued on the page? Politics, seasons, weather, work, road construction, allergies, anniversaries? What’s out of our control that affects how we think about the world and what is happening to us right now? What influences how we exist in the world on a human level? Exposition is the work of context, of the writer putting themselves into conversation with the world around them. Relatable work stays in that one dimension, so insular to the writer’s experience that there isn’t room for anything else, not even the reader.
Michele Morano’s classic essay “The Subjunctive Mood” takes for its subject a tale in which many of us have found ourselves—a toxic relationship—but her shift from story to experience, from relatability to relevance, comes in constructing the essay in the form of a grammar lesson. Her structure provides the warrant of Why does this matter? Donald Morrill’s memoir The Untouched Minutes, about a home invasion, is a scenario that few of us have experienced, and yet he does not rely on the forward momentum of narrative tension for the page’s energy: he constructs the book in a braid, moving in and out of the primary narrative, in a way that creates meaning for a reader who has never and (hopefully) will never experience what he and his wife did. Tim Hillegonds, in “Making Fresh,” argues:
When Speer Morgan used the phrase “making fresh,” which is different than finding fresh or uncovering fresh, he began with the assumption that my subject was stale, but he also began with the assumption that it didn’t have to stay that way—it could be transformed. He acknowledged the power there is not in finding freshness, but in making freshness, in creating what Mary Karr calls “the sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”
It’s the same shift from simply playing the piano to making music. There’s a difference. Blind talent will only get you so far: the rest is the old joke in which a famous-yet-unrecognized musician, late to his own concert, asked a stranger on the street, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and got “Practice, practice, practice” in reply.
Toward Resonance: High Exposition
If What do I know? is the key to relatability, How do I know it? is the shift to relevance. And if What does it mean? is the work of relevance, then Why does it matter to anyone else? is the key to resonance. Where is the writer working toward finding the universal in the specific? On a craft level, resonance comes in what Bill Roorbach, in Writing Life Stories, calls “high exposition.” Roorbach defines it as “exposition that’s aphoristic (an aphorism is a saying, an adage). […] High exposition has a quality of grand truth, of universal applicability. God probably thinks in high exposition when He or She is not making up the stories of our lives.” Resonance asks What about this piece is a bell that cannot be unrung? Brian Doyle is a master of resonance: who among us has not felt the lingering effects of “Joyas Voladoras” or “Leap” or “Dawn and Mary” long after we have put the page away?
Resonance isn’t the sound—it’s what lingers after the sound dips to a frequency we cannot hear but only feel. Castleton Tower in Utah vibrates about the same frequency as the human heart, and I wonder what it feels like to stand there, if our bones feel something that our brain can’t recognize. The craft of resonance, then, is the writer creating far-reaching vibrations into the universe, as sound waves—like light waves—do not stop until something stops them. I’m interested in the forces at work that cause a nonfiction page to vibrate in a way that lingers. Nonfiction that resonates reaches for what’s outside ourselves, outside our own contexts, for what makes us human at our core.
KAREN BABINE is the two-time Minnesota Book Award-winning author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015). She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her third book, Acadie: A Family Ecology, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2023. Find Karen on Twitter @karenbabine.
Featured image by Markus Spiske courtesy of Unsplash