In “New Neighbors,” a creative nonfiction published in Subtropics, Ryan Ruff Smith uses footnotes to enrich the authorial perspective speaking from within a relationship.
Here’s footnote 4, for example:
4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.
And footnote 5 undercuts the veracity of the narrative itself:
5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.
David Leavitt asks him why he decided to use footnotes in this way. I’m going to quote Ryan’s response in full just to give a sense of how an improvisational tactic winds up playing an interesting and provocative role in an essay:
Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.
The way in which the footnotes challenge the authority of the narrator only makes the narrator more reliable to me. I footnote so many of my thoughts and assertions…and I appreciate the way Smith uses this as a device to acknowledge multiple leavings of meaning in service of truth in the essay.