By Courtney Zanosky
While Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby exemplified how creative nonfiction is able to reach outside of an author and into the world, connecting together the personal and the universal; the human and the world, Amy Benson’s The Sparkling-Eyed Boy is a lyrical masterpiece that demonstrates how the lines between fiction and nonfiction are fluid—how memoir is based in memory, but how memory is not always exact. In this book that takes the question “What If?” to new boundaries, Benson remembers her first love as he was, as she remembers him being, and how she imagines and wishes they could have been. While many authors turn to fiction in order to work out the “What If?” in their own lives, Benson constantly plays with the border of truth and fiction in a wholly honest memoir that does not make her story better, but just shows the lengths of human wishing, the tendency to imagine that we would have acted in a certain way, and the way we deal with regrets.
I had the humbling opportunity to speak with Benson through email, and while I fangirled for quite a bit, Benson had some interesting points to offer regarding the creation of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy and her personal draw to creative nonfiction. As a recent MFA in poetry graduate who found herself lost and miserable in a Ph.D program, she turned to writing narratives in paragraph form that allowed her to hone the voice that would eventually run throughout this book. Perhaps that is one of the beautiful things about creative nonfiction; it is a form that allows an author to work through emotional turmoil and to explore the past, present, and future in such a way that enables one to see what has profoundly affected the path up to the present. For Benson, that was the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Sparkling-Eyed Boy. The emotions aren’t imagined, but rather they are inherently a part of who Benson is and will be. Nonfiction helped lead Benson through a miserable point in her life and into a deeper understanding of how the past is inseparable from the present. She untangles a part of her life that at the time she didn’t understand—“It’s so unfair that we live what we don’t understand, and then we understand when we can no longer live it.”
In doing so, Benson asks the reader to trust her and to follow her as she reaches out and says, “Imagine this with me, will you?” and, “Here’s an invention that springs to mind… what’s yours?” While an imagined life with the Sparkling-Eyed Boy may seem like it would be a romance novel, it is far from that. Benson doesn’t imagine fireworks and happiness, but she instead takes her own faults and uses them to demonstrate why their lives would have never been able to merge. He belonged to his land in the Upper Peninsula, and she didn’t belong to a land—always seeking the elsewhere. She imagines a love affair in which they are together, but he always returns to his wife. In these honest ways of framing herself, she is true to reality even in the deep scenes that are anything but fact, because, as she admits to herself: “you have no right to imagine, the impulses of his brain, which you will never rightly imagine.”
Benson wrote me in an email that she is interested in all of the things that go into the human experience— “the concrete and actual and verifiable” to the “wholesale inventions or experiences rife with the problems of perception and memory.” It is fact that Benson knew a Sparkling-Eyed Boy. It is fact that she visited the Upper Peninsula each summer with her family. It is fact that she left him behind. It is fact that she has encountered him again in their adult lives. But the way she experienced that—the way she perceives and remembers all of those childhood and adult memories—are all rooted in her own human experience. Her experience is an experience that is entirely different than one that you or I may have had in the same situations. She writes, “I am still willing myself to unknown what I know: people grow up; one identity disintegrates as another is forged; people don’t love each other forever; just because I write doesn’t make it so. I am creating the most elaborate shrine to unknowing that I can imagine.” And that is what makes creative nonfiction beautiful and honest, even when it plays with the boundaries of fiction, because there is no concrete formula for life or remembering or erasing the lies we tell ourselves—perception and memory is fluid and ever-changing. Our experiences are always changing. The memory of the Sparkling-Eyed Boy is always changing. We are always changing.