ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: X is for Xenolith

Posted by on Jul 29, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

xenolith

Source: Bryant Olsen | No changes

Xenolith (n.)  xe·no·lith \ˈze-nə-ˌlith, ˈzē-\: a fragment of a rock included in another rock

I feel like I have to open with a disclaimer here: while I certainly am I writer, I more often or not define myself as a poet. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in Creative Nonfiction insomuch as, the way I write it, it’s largely just another way to say poetry. The way I put my words down on the page may often look a little different, but I still think that Creative Nonfiction and Poetry (with those capital letters) are really striving toward the same goal: Truth. Or rather, the Closest Possible Thing to truth, which could also be called our own, personal version of the (capital letter) Truth.

So, being a poet, and X being an exceedingly difficult letter, I must defer to metaphor. While I’m more of an indoor cat, it’s sometimes hard to believe the perfection of the images nature just drops in to our laps. It’s like the world wants one to be a writer.

Here’s the easiest way to break down this particular metaphor: the surrounding rock is nonfiction and the embedded rock is creative to make…dun dun dun…Creative Nonfiction. The nonfiction part is the facts, the part that to most people makes the piece true versus untrue. But your goal, as the writer, isn’t just to give your reader the facts, it’s to give them the Truth…your Truth. To lead them to the rock embedded in the facts, the heart of the matter, not just the objective report of what happened, but rather the subjective view of the situation only you can give. There isn’t a definitive Truth, after all, only a beautiful, flawed, but wholly your own version of truth. Something only you can give the world.

Xenoliths are created when rock is somewhat malleable for a time (during the host rock’s development) and a secondary rock becomes embedded in the larger body. That foreign rock can be buried for a long time within the larger frame of rock before some natural (or human) force reveals it. Geologists care about xenoliths not only because they’re often beautiful, but because they can give a scientist a more specific and detailed history of the original rock. Xenoliths in writing are similar because they a) are already somewhere within the facts, b) can take a while, rooting around in all those facts, to find, and c) give the facts something richer, fuller, and all over more meaningful. Truth.

Or, if all this rock talk is boring you, take a look at Brian Turner’s poem “Jundee Ameriki,” from his book Phantom Noise. Like most writers, I tend to turn to the work of other writers as example whenever I’m at a loss for words:

At the VA Hospital in Long Beach, California

Dr. Sushruta scores open a thin layer of skin

to reveal an object traveling up through muscle.

It is a kind of weeping the body does, expelling

Foreign material, sometimes years after injury.

Dr. Sushruta lifts slivers of shrapnel, bits

of coarse gravel, road debris, diamond

points of glass—the minutiae of the story

Reconstructing a cold afternoon in Baghdad,

November of 2005. The body offers aged cloth

from an abaya dyed in blood, shards of bone.

And if he were to listen intently, he might hear

the roughened larynx of this women calling up

through the long corridors of flesh, saying

Allah al Akbar, before releasing

her body’s weapon, her dark and lasting gift

for this Jundee Ameriki, who carries fragments

of the war inscribed in scar tissue,

a deep, intractable pain, the dull grief of it

the body must learn to absorb.

Devon Bohm Bio Pic 2Brian Turner’s piece is exactly the kind of xenolith of writing I’m trying to get at here. He could have told us about that day is Baghdad fact by fact, could have pieced the story together objectively and clearly, and such a stunning image, told in any way, would still have impacted the reader. But the facts of what happened aren’t the heart, aren’t the rock within the rock of what he’s saying. It’s not what’s happened, it’s the way what happened, like the xenolith, was once embedded, but has now worked it’s way to the surface. The impact isn’t the original moment, the original rock. The impact is what’s created when the secondary rock rears its way up and out and has to be written down. Combining the two stories created a much stronger piece of writing—created a xenolith that not only gives the reader facts the but creates meaning out of said facts. Creating your truth, versus the not-actually-real Truth.

So I say, embrace the xenolith when it works it’s way up. No matter how hard or bloody or convoluted. The heart of the matter is often all of those things, but it’s what will make your writing resonate. As a writer, it’s not only your job, but perhaps your privilege, to be able to dig down deep, past the facts, and find that rock within the rock. Become a scientist of fact and memory, classifying and working it all out, finding a way for all of us to make sense of the world in a way only you can provide.


Devon Bohm graduated cum laude from Smith College with a BA in English Literature and Language and earned her MFA with a dual concentration in Poetry and Fiction from Fairfield University. While an undergraduate, she studied English and Classical Literature at University College London. Her poetry has been published in Labrys and in 2011 she was awarded the Hatfield Prize for Best Short Story. Devon is a former Editor in Chief of the Literary Arts Journal Mason’s Road and a former Adjunct Professor of English at Fairfield University. She has previously been featured in Spry’s ABC’s of Writers (for Beginners) series.

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