The truth will set you free.
In all fields of Creative writing Intent is highly important.
What do you intend to achieve with a piece of writing?
What audience do you intend to attract?
Your intent as a writer will give the potential reader expectations.
If you intend to write fiction, then readers will not assume that any of the events they are reading about actually happened.
If you intend to write memoir, then readers will expect that what they are reading about actually happened.
There is some leeway here on both sides.
Fiction can be based around real events. You’ve probably seen stories and movies claiming something like: This is based on a true story…
The expression ‘based on a true story’ can be confusing.
Usually if something is based on a true story then it’s probably mostly fiction.
Nothing wrong with that. Fiction is usually to some degree based on true events.
In fact fiction is so frequently based on true events that there really is no need to claim that a work is based on a true story.
So the question is this: What is the intent of using the subheading …based on a true story…?
If I was being a harsh critic I would say that the intent is to mislead the reader or audience.
The intent is to give the impression that the story about to be related is non-fiction.
But we don’t know which elements of the story are true and which are made-up.
And if we don’t know that then, what we are about to experience is pretty much pure fiction.
The point I’m getting at is that if you write something that’s 90 percent true and 10 percent made-up, then in my opinion you’re writing pure fiction.
However, if when you get to the parts that are made-up you say something like: I don’t know exactly what happened during this time, but I’m guessing it was something like this… then you’re still writing non-fiction.
This is partly what I’m getting at when I talk about the philosophical difference between truth and honesty.
They say that truth will set you free.
On the other hand, honesty is the best policy.
Never mislead your reader.
(Of course, there’s a caveat with that statement too. The mystery writer’s stock in trade is the ability to misdirect the reader. But if you’re reading a mystery then you’re expecting to be misdirected. You expect that some of the characters are going to lie, and you expect that you won’t know which ones are lying until the denouement.)
So, in fiction it shouldn’t necessarily be important whether the events really happened or not.
In memoir it’s vital that the reader know that the events really happened, and vital that they know when––for reasons of honesty––you are fictionalizing limited episodes within the real events.
And that is the only significant difference between fiction and memoir.
The writing techniques that bring your imaginary world to life in fiction can, and should, be used in memoir.
Just as if you were writing fiction you should use the following:
Scene and Summary
Image and Voice
Point of View (POV)
And human connection.
Let’s look at how some of these techniques play out in memoir.
Scene and Summary:
Memoirs need scenes every bit as much as stories do.
Books of fiction and memoir evolved from plays.
Up until around 1800 most ordinary people couldn’t read so, for the most part they would experience stories as stage plays. Thus the story inherited the technique of breaking up a longer work into shorter segments known as scenes––plus the internal method of structuring the scenes.
I like to think of scenes like waves on the ocean, progressing from wave-tip to trough, and wave-tip to trough.
The scene structure can be as subtle as a calm sea, intensely dramatic as a storm, or a mix of the two…and yet there’s still a natural progression from one to the other.
Let’s say your memoir piece has three scenes:
1: What happened during supper with my older brother..
2: What happened when we walked round the block.
3: What happened when we came home.
If you’re out on the ocean, you’ll notice that each wave is made up of smaller waves, or wavelets, and this is also how scene works.
Each scene is built up from smaller scenelets.
So, in my sample memoir scene 1: What happened during supper… will be broken into smaller episodes:
a: What happened while I put the food on the plate.
b: What happened while we were eating.
c: Why we decided to walk around the block.
Now, this might all be one short memoir piece, but the events will hopefully be of such intensity that the narrative has to be broken into segments, with breathing spaces in between. The breathing spaces in the full scenes are on the long side. The breathing spaces between the scenelets are brief…it’s like you’re swimming the length of a swimming pool underwater, coming up for air, and at the same time seeing how far down the pool you’ve swum since the last breather.
Writing ‘in scene’ means writing sense impressions, in other words mostly writing action and dialogue.
The breathing spaces are called ‘summary.’ Summary is whatever background information you feel is necessary to make the narrative work.
Take a look at this scenelet from ‘Images’ by Robert Haas.
Just down from the mountains, early August. Lugging my youngest child from the car, I noticed that his perfectly relaxed body was getting heavier every year. When I undressed his slack limbs, he woke up enough to mumble, “I like my own bed,” then fell back down, all the way down, into sleep. The sensation of his weight was still in my arms as I shut the door.
Notice how Haas begins in summary: Just down from the mountains, early August then moves into sense impressions: Action/ reaction/action/reaction, and so forth. See how the shift conveys the rolling cadence of a man carrying his child.
This might be the heart of why we like scenes. They are pleasing to read, perhaps they even recall the way we were rocked in the womb.
Image and Voice:
I find it helpful to think about ‘voice‘ as ‘persona.’
You probably pass most of your life with a kind of everyday persona––the you everyone expects you to be most of the time.
But you don’t always adopt that everyday persona.
When I was a teen I had two distinct personas.
They even talked with different accents.
When I was at home I’d talk with a BBC accent, and I’d assume the persona of the well-behaved family member.
When I was out with my school friends I’d assume the persona of a tough street kid, and talk in a South London accent.
But I also had another set of friends who were artsy, and when I was with them I’d adopt yet another persona.
So, if I’m going to write memoirs of my teenage years––which I do frequently––I tend to adopt the persona that most closely relates to the events and characters in the narrative.
I would probably not write a story about my brother in the same voice as I’d write about my friend Clive who hung out with Hell’s Angels. It wouldn’t make sense, and it would spoil the story.
Do you have different personas?
Some of you are going to become teachers. You will probably adopt an entirely different persona in the classroom from the one you might have at a house party.
Have you ever been to a costume party and adopted the persona of the character you’ve dressed up as?
Do you present the same persona to strangers that you present for friends?
Who are you writing for? Probably strangers rather than friends.
This is how you might begin a class lecture as a history teacher::
The opening German offensive of World War Two was launched early on September 20th 1939…
But memoir calls for a different stance, attitude, or persona. This is me writing about a school trip to Berlin in the 1980s, before the wall came down.
The war had been over for forty years when I crossed Checkpoint Charlie, but exploding bombs still echoed down every street and alley of East Berlin. Even when I stood motionless in the middle of Friedrichstrasse at 3 AM there was a kind of bass rumble that still reverberated off the fractured concrete. Dawn crept past me throwing sharp angles onto the rows of mansion blocks that looked like nothing so much as mausoleums in a monumental cemetery, and as the sun began to warm my back I noticed dozens––no hundreds––of pockmarks in every wall. The scars of bullets and shrapnel, that had never been repaired. I wondered how well the inhabitants of the buildings had been repaired. Some of them had just stumbled out of a bar and were walking towards me.
This is from “Hoop Sex,” by Theodore Weesner.
The park is hardly a block away, where lighted ball diamonds come into view on ducking through branches. There too is a fenced acre for unleashed dogs, a half-dozen tennis courts with yellow balls flying and, close by, a game of summertime hoops under the lights, a scrambling, squeaking, stampede of sweat and bodies on green tarmac…
Notice how Weesner’s reveals the persona as he builds towards the basketball game (that he refers to as ‘hoops.’). Imagine if the same scene was related by a dog-owner or a tennis fan.
Memoir relies on character. In an academic essay character might be explained, although even in a formal essay explanation is not the best approach. Instead we follow one of the central tenets of all creative writing which is Show Don’t Tell. In other words character should be portrayed through the dialogue, actions, and details of the players in the story.
For memoir the problem here is immediately evident as soon as we begin to write. We might be able to remember what someone wore on the specific occasion, and even what they did, but there’s no way we can remember exactly what we––or they––said on a particular day.
We need to write remembering as truly as we can, and then perhaps test in our minds whether the other person would agree with the reconstruction of the dialogue.
In a personal essay where integrity to the exact events is critical then you might lead into the reconstructed dialogue with a signal phrase such as:
What we said was like this…
Our conversation went something like this…
I think that for a memoir where there’s a lot of dialogue you might only need to use a signal phrase once, even if at all. I think you can rely on the reader expecting that you’re just presenting a reconstruction from you memory.
Right now I’m working on a memoir of the days when I played saxophone in a rock band.
These are my notes for one of the scenes.
A girl I’d never seen before appeared at band practice.
The idea was that she was going to be the vocalist instead of me––which was fine by me, as I hated singing, not to mention that I really didn’t have the personality to front the band. The girl also played the flute, and there was a famous rock band at the time with a flute player called Jethro Tull.
It was a cold day and the floor was a tangle of winter coats, cables, and instrument cases. The girl played a few bars on her flute then put it on the floor to start singing.
This is how I turned it into a scene:
Mandy placed her flute on the floor of the cramped garage, and picked her way across to the mic, trying not to trip over all our crap. “What are we going to play?”
“Johnny B. Goode,” I said.
“I don’t know it,” she said. “What are the words?”
“It’s a rock-n-roll standard,” I said. “Everyone knows it.” I strummed a few chords on the guitar, and launched into the opening lines with all the confidence of someone who isn’t actually a guitarist and can’t really sing.
She waved her arms about. I thought for a moment she was dancing and getting into it, then she yelled, “Stop! For Chrissakes, Stop!”
“Nobody wants to listen to that rubbish! You want to play Motown stuff like James Brown!”
I noodled a timid guitar solo, and glanced from Rick to Neil to Charlie, but everyone was looking in different directions.
“Where’s my flute,” said Mandy. She bent down, shifted a ski-jacket to one side, and stood back up with her instrument. It was flattened and bent. “No!” she cried. “Who trod on it!?” Her expression twisted. I went from wanting to chase her out of the garage to wanting to hug her, then she whirled on me, and shook the flute as if it was a weapon. “It was you, wasn’t it. You stamped on it because you don’t want me in the band!”
“No!” I said.
She pointed at the floor. “It had to be you. Look at where you’re standing, and look at your stupid boots.”
I was wearing stupid boots. It could have been me. In any case I hadn’t meant to do it, and anyway, it could have been any of us––even Mandy herself, but being who I am I’ve always believed it actually was me.
As in the above excerpt, setting can be key to the whole point of the story. Without the disorganized garage the events might have taken a whole different turn.
The good thing about settings is that they’re easier to remember, and sometimes you could even go back and visit the exact spot where it all happened.
Just as in a movie you can begin with a long shot and then gradually move in closer to the subject.
It’s just past eleven on a Friday night in the Spring of 1955. Here comes a kid down the length of Eighteenth Street in the Midwood section of Flatbush, in Brooklyn New York. He passes the kept lawns and the tidy hedges under the sycamores and maples. The middle class is asleep, and most of the houses attached to the lawns are dark, though an occasional window pulses with blue-gray television light. Streetlamps shine benignly and and Mars is red in the sky. The kid is on his way home from the weekly meeting of Troop 8, Boy Scouts of America…
“For the Love of a Princess of Mars,” by Frederick Busch.
Unlike a story creative non-fiction needs a balance of dramatization and reflection. This does not mean that the balance is always the same in all essays. A memoir can leave the reader with a vivid image of a moment of an error of judgement, whereas an essay about a walk in the woods may need half the space to list, analyze and elucidate the discoveries that have been made.
Sometimes a personal essay will convey its intensity precisely through the force of its abstractions.
I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements––even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us––when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a ‘peace’ movement becomes violent.
‘In Distrust of Movements,’ Wendell Berry.
One part of the purpose of creative non-fiction is always going to be to inform or teach, and this purpose is always variable. I think you need to show an intent. You need to draw the reader towards whatever it was that drew you to writing it in the first place.
In fiction you merely bring the reader to the scene and allow them to experience it. In non-fiction you probably need to direct the reader more directly towards what you want them to observe. It remains a matter of degree, with memoir giving the reader the greatest freedom to wander around within a scene and draw their own conclusions.
Writing Exercise: Persona.
There’s probably a voice that plays inside your head most of the time, and I would call this your default persona, or you everyday persona.
Write about a time when you adopted a different persona.
Maybe you were under stress and you “lost it”, as they say in England.
Maybe you were on a first date, you wanted to impress your partner, and you forgot to ‘be yourself.’
Maybe you tried to be funny, and you weren’t.
Maybe you felt threatened, and you acted tough.
Maybe you were deeply moved by something, and it brought out the romantic in you.
Write a page or so, and write a scenelet: begin with a little summary, then go straight into sense impressions.
Maybe just say to yourself, like Vladimir Nabokov, “Speak memory!” and see what appears on the page.
Fight hard to remain honest and truthful––and it will get difficult to be so––but if you get to a point where you can’t be honest, then tell the reader that you can’t.