Both of my parents were journalists. For many years my mother was the West Coast correspondent for The Nation. My father, now 90, wrote for dozens of left-wing publications and organizations, and for the last 20 years has been a sports reporter for a weekly newspaper in suburban San Francisco. When I was growing up, The New York Times was airmailed to our house every day. Mornings, I would frequently find on the kitchen counter an article neatly scissored out of the Times for me to read as a model of journalistic something or other. (I may have made this detail up, but it sounds right, it feels right, maybe it happened once.) I was the editor of my junior high school newspaper. I was the editor of my high school newspaper. Woodward and Bernstein were my heroes. (My parents' heroes, interestingly enough, weren't journalists, but who they called "real writers": Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow.)
My father stammered slightly, and in the verbal hothouse that was our family (dinner-table conversations always felt like a newsroom at deadline), I took his halting speech and turned it into a full-blown stutter. My stutter not only qualified any ambition I might have had to become a journalist--I couldn't imagine how I'd ever be able to imitate my mother's acquaintance Daniel Schorr and confidently ask a question at a presidential press conference--but also made me, in general, wary of any too direct discourse. In graduate school, when I studied deconstruction, it all seemed very self-evident. Language as self-canceling reverb that is always only communicating itself? I felt like I knew this from the inside out since I was six years old. Everything--in a stutterer's mind and mouth (at least in this stutterer's mind and mouth; notice how my impulse is always to treat my experience as not just my own, but somehow representative of everyone else's)--is up for grabs.
During college orientation, I joined the Brown Daily Herald, but by February I'd quit--or perhaps I was fired--when there was a big brouhaha surrounding the fact that I'd made stuff up. I started spending long hours in the Marxist bookstore just off campus, reading, and eating my lunch bought at McDonald's; I loved slurping coffee milkshakes while reading and rereading Sartre's The Words. I closed the library nearly every night for four years; at the end of one particularly productive work-session, I actually scratched into the concrete wall above my carrel, "I shall dethrone Shakespeare." Fueled by such ambition, I was a good bet for graduate school, where my first creative-writing instructor said she wished she were as famous to the world as she was to herself, and my second creative-writing instructor said that if he had to do it over again, he'd have become a screenwriter.
On my requisite breakneck tour of European capitals the summer after graduation from college, I carried in my backpack two books: Garcia-Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Proust's Swann's Way. Garcia-Marquez failed to hold my attention and Proust became a year-long addiction. I loved how Marcel was both sort of the author and sort of a character; how the book was both a work of fiction and a philosophical treatise; how it could talk about whatever it wanted for as long as it wanted to; how its deepest plot was uncovering the process by which it came into being.
And yet, perhaps under the influence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which when I was going to school there in the late 1970s was a citadel of traditionalism (as, for that matter, it still is), my first novel, Heroes, couldn't have fit any more snugly inside the rubric of linear realist novel. Heroes, which concerns a middle-aged Midwestern sportswriter's vicarious relationship with a gifted college basketball player, is the only book I've written that is pretty much whole-cloth invention.
It also bored me to death, because I wasn't in it. I wanted to write a book whose loyalty wasn't just to art but to life--my life. I wanted to be part of the process, part of the problem. My second novel, Dead Languages, is a book about a boy who stutters so badly that he worships words. The boy was named Jeremy Zorn, and most of the scenes in the book were so farcical that the reader couldn't possibly think they "really happened," but the four main characters--the narrator, his sister, and their parents--were modeled heavily on myself and the members of my family; the crux of the book was my love/hate affair with written/spoken language. It was, then, a highly autobiographical bildungsroman, the kind of book that is many writers' first novel. It took me a while to get around to myself as a subject; I thought I'd make up for lost time.
My next book, A Handbook for Drowning, was my first to make gestures toward what is now the central tenet of my aesthetic: the utter indivisibility of the varieties of expression. Content here was, I hope, testing form, for the book was a collection of linked pieces that veered from confession to fable but were unified by the unfolding narrative of a young man growing up fixated on his parents' idealism and his own morality. The book was about how any idée fixe (any ideology, any fear) can become a kind of drowning, and the multiplicity of structures and perspectives, the contradictions and correspondences between the pieces, were meant as metaphors for anti-rigidity, for anti-drowning.
A novelist friend, who can't not write fiction but is flummoxed whenever he writes nonfiction directly about his own experience, read my most recent book, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, and said he was impressed (alarmed?) at my willingness to say nearly anything about myself: "It's all about you and yet somehow it's not about you at all. How can that be?" Music, as they say, to my ears. That was exactly how I wanted "David Shields" to be read in Black Planet: as a highly stylized representative, in the first case, of American worship of and resentment toward celebrity and transmitted image; and in the second, of human beings' impulse to romanticize and revile the Other, particularly white people's ambivalence/adoration/anxiety about black heroes, black scapegoats, black bodies.
Each successive book has pushed harder at the boundaries of genre, is increasingly hybrid, always as a way to get at what has become my principal subject--the riddle of identity (mine especially, but yours, too, I promise). Nothing particularly heroic or revolutionary about any of this; the only place I could find to live, literarily, was by carving out my own space between the interstices of fiction and non. As Emily Dickinson instructed, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."
Self-study of any seriousness aspires to be myth. The only serious journey, to me, is deeper into the self; we're all guaranteed, of course, never to fully know ourselves, which fails, somehow, to mitigate the urgency of the journey. To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.