Thursday, May 1, 2014

5 Things to Remember When Writing Creative Non-fiction (or Autobiographical Fiction)

TIP 1: There's no such thing as 100% fiction or 100% non-fiction. (More on this in a second.)

This last week, The New York Times featured Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison as they discussed whether it was okay to mine real relationships for literary material. Francine Prose said, "Obviously it's different if one is writing fiction or a memoir" ---but doesn't prose blur those lines, even a bit?

Back to my tip, there's no such thing as 100% fiction or non-fiction. James Frey really fueled this conversation, didn't he? (If you're not aware, you can read about the controversy here.) Now bookstores have a section called "autobiographical fiction," and in this section are such titles as: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (the passages with Fitzgerald are known as revisionist history, and other parts are speculated to be as well);  A Death in the Family by James Agee (the Pulitzer Prize winner whose author was a toddler when his dad passed away, so understandably much is imagined); and the classic The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (a girl with a mental disorder is understandably allowed to fill in the blanks of what she doesn't remember).

On this same idea, how many of you have sat down to write something as simple as a journal entry and you think to yourself, "Now, did I say the thing after she said the thing or before she said the thing?" You might skip over that line and you continue along just to find another stumbling block. "Now, I know I went to the bank that day, but was that the day I ran into Jeffery and later saw The Grand Budapest Hotel?"

It's so easy to ask yourself, "Does it matter?" But as a writer, your responsibility is to tell as close to the truth as you can.

TIP 2: Tell as close to the truth as you can, but don't choose to not write if you don't exactly remember how something went. 

We all suffer from fallible memory. All of us. (Especially those of us who read long packets of student work every other week.) Because of this fallible human memory, some writers choose not to write. They're so close to the memory that they still feel the need to write it out, but they're distanced enough from it that they block themselves because they don't know who said what when.

Can I just tell you something? Write what you remember first. Do whatever you need to do to give yourself permission to leave the holes. You might need to put a row of x's to keep your place, or you may use whatever word processor at your fingertips (Word, Scrivener, etc) to highlight or mark the areas you need to come back.

TIP 3: Allow yourself to imagine. 

Some of you (I include myself here) can't leave a hole in the narrative to move on to another part. Don't let this become your stumbling block. Give yourself permission to imagine. What could have happened, not in a "what if" kind of way, but in a way that allows you to tell as close to the truth as possible.

Some legalistic, linear writers have a hard time with this one: "But I don't know that he was sipping coffee in the office when he fired me." First of all, if you're writing a memory that involves tension (as you should be, if you want a good story), you're most definitely not going to be remembering every finite detail. But if you're describing an office setting, and if it was in the morning (even the late morning), and your boss is the kind of person that has to have coffee going even until 2pm when the secretaries are tired of making it, it's a safe bet that he was drinking coffee when he fired you. Use reason and logic in all areas like this. If you're writing about the time you lost the diamond in your engagement ring in a parking lot, you can easily describe the pavement as having gum spots. Do you 100% remember the gum spots? No, but a parking lot without them is rare. See how this works? Use your writerly imagination to fill in details that will make the scene come alive. Trust me: it harms no one.

TIP 4: Don't get caught up in details, but communicate the underlying truth.

But writing isn't about coffee and gum spots, is it? It's about people (characters) talking (dialogue), sometimes in direct conflict with what they think or feel (narrative, conflict, POV, voice), and what consequences a person (character) has from choices that he or she has made (plot). That, my friends, is how you tell a story.

Don't get caught up in who said what at what time and who they were with and what year they moved there and what job they had at the time and who was their neighbor and what that neighbor said in gossip about them. Can you see how trivial that can get? No, start with the underlying tension of a scene -with conflict. You might avoid conflict in "real life" and that's okay, but a story must have conflict to be interesting. If you're writing a memory, don't start with chronology, but instead write the strongest part of the memory. For example, I remember when my mom would take my brother and I shopping as toddlers, and the clothing racks were in circles and my brother would hide in the middle of the circle. Cute, but not interesting, right? Well, it gets more interesting because once mom and I left the store with Sean still inside one of the racks. That's interesting because of the conflict. After that, I can go back and describe my memory of the dominant 80's oranges and reds, the rockstar hot pinks and faux black leather, the geometric prints that I grew up hating, some of which as an adult I now wear. See how that works? The details come in after, not before.

When Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar, she started the autobiographical novel about a girl in New York City studying fashion. Did Sylvia Plath study fashion? No, but she wrote for a fashion magazine. The essence of her memory is there -car accidents, associations with characters, parties- it's just that the details are a little different.

TIP 5: Decide if what you're writing is fiction or non-fiction.

Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas), and one of the reasons for changing the details of the story was because she wanted to tell a true story without everyone knowing that it was her.

Sometimes writers want to keep good relationships with their friends and family members by claiming these goings on to be fiction, thus changing the names. And sometimes the friends and family members can already see that the characters are based on themselves and get mad anyway. So what is in a name? This could be the moment when you ask yourself if what you're writing is fiction or if what you're writing is non-fiction. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

-Is there enough plot? Sometimes you see something that has happened in "real life" and you think that it makes a good story on its own. That's non-fiction. But sometimes something has happened in "real life" and you think that it's a good start to a story, and you change some actions. That's fiction.

-Why are you writing? Sometimes something has happened in your life and the only way to deal with it is to write about it. If you are writing it as it happened scene-by-scene, that's non-fiction. If you are writing about the idea (theme) of what happened in a different character's life, that's fiction. (And, by the way, you should never write to destroy a person that you know. That's libel. You should write non-fiction to explore your own story.)

-Who are your characters? It's natural for characters to be drafted after people we know. In fact, it's really hard to draft good characters if they don't share any qualities of people we know. If your characters are carbon-copied into your draft and they associate with a main character that is really you, that's non-fiction. If your characters are mostly real with a few invented qualities and you play the "what if" game, that's fiction. (And if you write carbon-copied characters with the intention of showing their flaws, that's libel. But if you write these carbon-copied characters to show how they acted in your own story, that's memoir.)

So what now?

The writer's curse is that we have these great ideas but not enough time to record them. Start today, my friends. Don't start by deciding if you're going to write a memoir or an autobiographical fiction. Instead, follow the story. Write it down a piece at a time, and only when you're done with your first draft should you decide what it is exactly. By the way, give yourself permission to experiment, because the first draft is supposed to be bad. Give yourself permission to be courageous, and give yourself permission to write the story you need to write.

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