I never want to discover, after reading a piece of non-fiction, that I have not read a piece of non-fiction.
“Essays,” says novelist and travel-writer, Edward Hoagland, “are how we speak to one another in print––caroming thoughts around not merely to convey a certain packet of information but with a special edge of bounce or personal character in a kind of public letter.… More than being instructive, as in a magazine article, an essay has a slant….”
How do you balance the information against the slant?
How––in that caroming––do you judge when the edge or bounce has overwhelmed the instruction?
In the current era readers have become intensely interested in what REALLY happened, and memoirs, personal experience, biography, are now more marketable than fiction or poetry.
This could be the result of spending a lifetime watching TV and movies. We have become overstuffed with drama, and its predictable plot progressions.
We know when to expect the turning points in Hollywood movies and prime time TV. We know to expect escalating conflicts leading to a climax. We know that the guy in the white hat is usually going to win, and we know how to read the signals when he isn’t going to.
We’re also fed news and sport on the TV, 24 hours a day if we want.
In those fields we know who the good guys and who the bad guys are, but in sport and the news the good guys loose more often than not, and often there is no predictable plot line to help us predict.
How many election polls have been wrong? About half of them.
How many pre-match predictions have been wrong?
I have no idea. I like sport, and I seldom watch, even so I know that the good guys lose about as often as they win and when interviewed football (by which I mean ‘footy’) players often just shrug apologetically and say, “Aye. That’s fetball for ye.” (if they speak in a Scottish dialect, which they seem to do in my memory).
Firstly, it’s not always clear what is fact, and what is fiction, especially with a government that talks about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’ Hopefully most Americans realize this is just political rhetoric, and not a real attempt to undermine the free press––or perhaps it is a real attempt. Time will tell.
The problem with facts is that they do tend to look different depending on your viewpoint.
In the literary world there have been a number of scandals when authors were caught out trying to pass off fictional exploits as their own.
What is a docudrama? Is it a documentary or a drama?
What exactly does ‘based on a true story’ mean? Just how solidly based on the truth is the story?
If a memoir remembers a dialogue from a decade ago, then how accurate can it be?
Can you conflate events for brevity and clarity? If you had seven conversations with a close friend, can you turn all of these conversations in one single conversation?
If you change descriptions to shield a living character from the truth (or yourself from a law-suit), are you being dishonest?
At some point every author of a memoir has to grapple with these questions. The good thing for us is that we are all working on early drafts and, even though we need to keep these considerations in the back of our minds, we don’t have to face them head on.
Besides, the mere act of putting something into words tends to change it in your memory. You will begin by writing about what seems a random event from your past, but as you write you will find that you remember more and more about the event, and as the words mount up, you will most likely realize that your choice was not so random after all. You instinctively chose something significant to you from the endless files in your memory. Perhaps that conversation is still relatively clear in your memory because it still irks you, even a decade later.
If it wasn’t important, you probably would have put it right out of your mind.
So, this is the main guideline: be as scrupulous as can about the facts as you write them, but what you are really after is the deeper truth behind the facts.
This is also a difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography tends to be a record of what happened. The memoir focuses more on why it happened, and what did it mean?
So, there is a distance between facts and essential truth.
What––and how much––is it fair to make up?
I have a friend who wears only clothes made before the 1950’s. His clothes are amazing, and it would be inaccurate to include him in a memoir piece without detailing his outfit at the precise moment that I want to write about.
I could ask him what he was wearing, but in all likelihood he would have forgotten too, yet, working against that is the fact that I would be missing a wonderful writing opportunity if I didn’t make some concrete statements about his clothing on that day. Was he wearing plus fours? a Panama hat? a silk tie? a pinstripe shirt with detachable collar? Did he have a mustache? and was it waxed?
In order to bring this friend to life in all his full-colored glory I would have to make some guesses and compromises. It wouldn’t be exactly true…but it would have the truth in its intent.
It would be less true to leave reader believing that this character is as dull as the rest of us.
Writers of fiction also sometimes need to grapple with fact––in their case for verisimilitude (authenticity). James Joyce apparently researched every Dublin bus route and ticket price for accuracy in ULYSSES.
On the other hand EL Doctorow invented the events in the lives of several real historical characters in RAGTIME.
What you need to ask yourself is: Am I attempting to deceive?
The fiction writer does not need to worry about this, bu the essayist must ask this the whole time, and as you have been working on memoirs you must be familiar with the question coming into your head.
Clearly in a classroom situation nobody will know if you make stuff up––but the big problem is that if you do stray too far beyond the bounds of fact, then you defeat the purpose of writing memoir. You will never reach the deep truth you are after.
On the other hand if you drift beyond the boundaries a little here and there, you will still reach the point of the exercise, and you can always bring yourself back within the confines in a later draft. Once you have reached the truth, you can take out whatever facts or non-facts that led you to the truth.
But you should definitely remove the non-facts.
You can also signal a lack of available facts with phrases like: I imagine the conversation went something like this…
This is from A SON IN THE SHADOW by Fred D’Agular, and it details the beginning of his parents’ courtship––an event about which cannot know very much.
I know nothing about how they meet. She is a schoolgirl. He is at work, probably a government clerk in a building near her school. At the hour when the school and the office are out for lunch their lives intersect at sandwich counters, soft-drink stands, traffic lights, market squares. Their eyes meet or their bodies collide at one of these food queues. He says something suggestive, complimentary. She suppresses a smile or traps one beneath her hands.
Thus, your assignment is to write about your parents’ or grandparents’ courtship.
You are most likely going to have to imagine the entire thing.
You may know snippets.
The snippets may vary depending on which partner you talk to.
Acknowledge where you are speculating in some way.
However it must remain an essay. It cannot be fiction.
This is my attempt.
My Grandparents’ Courtship.
They met in Brimingham, England, shortly after the First World War, or the Great War as it was known at the time. He had been a conscientious objector and an ambulance driver—-like Hemingway.
Molly was from a family of German immigrants, which was not a good thing to be in England during the war years, or afterwards. She was tall, blonde, elegant, and beautiful. She had been engaged to be married to a jewish boy from a very religious family. Both families had opposed the match, and forced them to break it off. After the break-up the boy took his own life—-I’m not sure how.
She was working in Woolworths, and Harry had gone in to buy an alarm clock. That much I know for fact.
I like to think Harry had spotted her from afar, and the alarm clock was merely a ruse to start a conversation with Molly, after all Harry was an artist, and what does an artist really need an alarm clock for?
Molly would probably have been very resistant to Harry’s charms. She had been deeply in love with her previous fiancé. He had died. Had she even been able to openly mourn him? Was she still grieving? Not to mention that she was probably still having to endure some persecution for her Geman-ness, and she was lucky to have any kind of job at all. Women were not supposed to work, and this was during the Great Depression. She would have been afraid of being fired.
Then there was the Spanish flu.
This is how I imagine the conversation went.
Harry: Hello, I’d like to buy an alarm clock.
Molly: Certainly, Sir. We have several different models…
Harry: You have amazing blue eyes.
Molly: Thank you, Sir. This is the Timex, it’s probably the most popular model.
Harry: And gorgeous hair.
Molly: Thank you. Sir. Would you like the Timex? Or can I show you some other models?
Harry: Could I buy you a cup of tea at Lyons Tea House?
Molly: I have to warn you that I’m German. Your family won’t like me. You might have met some of my relatives in the trenches.
Harry: I certainly did, but I was an ambulance-driver, so the Germans I met needed first aid, and I was careful to triage them equally with British soldiers, and bandage them up as carefully as any of my own countrymen.
Molly: Triage? What is that? Can I wrap the Timex for you?
Harry: I can’t decide which alarm clock is best, so why don’t I take all of them.
Molly: I’ll wrap all of them, then.
Harry: Absolutely, and then shall we meet at half past five?
Molly: I don’t think…
Harry: I’ll pay for the clocks now, but I have to go to a meeting, so could you bring the clocks with you when you come Lyons?