photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholasjones/5032232903/sizes/m/in/photostream/
This semester I am taking two classes and an independent study. One class is Form and Theory in Fiction. The other is a mostly nonfiction workshop that includes an unusually heavy reading load for that sort of course, making it a hybrid of student critique and Form and Theory in Nonfiction.
Each week I’ve read a novel and a memoir as a result. It’s had me thinking lately about the difference between truth in fiction and truth in nonfiction.
I’m not referring to facts. In both of these genres, the facts are incidental: present only to reveal a greater truth. In nonfiction, the facts are more important because they are the bridge that carries the reader to the truth as the writer discovers it for herself. Discovering a betrayal of facts in creative nonfiction can make the reader feel betrayed and corrupt the greater truth at the core of the work. But in my mind the facts remain separate from the truth.
I like memoirs. My favorites are The Color of Water by James McBride and Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. But I don’t write memoir. Here and there I will write a short–very short–personal essay, and that’s the extent of it.
So I’ve been asking myself: as a writer, what is it about fiction that gets me to the truth more effectively than nonfiction? Why do I have this affinity toward novels? When I examine my reading habits, I tend to choose just as many memoirs and biographies as novels. Why not write them?
The answer for me is pretty psychotherapeutic so far. It turns out that my novels have become vehicles for me to discover or work through a circumstance in my present life that I cannot get at in any other way. Here’s what I mean. Memoirs sift through the past, memories and events and histories, to make sense of a life. My novels, although they are about fictional characters, often reveal or parallel a circumstance in my present life that I had not realized existed before writing it.
Sarah, the protagonist narrator of the novel I am revising, is a young artist growing up in an iconoclastic Calvinist church and trying to navigate dating. Her encounters with experimental characters from the art community collide with her spiritual search for truth and get mucked up in her hormones and emotions. In this, we begin with similar circumstances. But otherwise, Sarah is not me. She has a different family and economic background, different friends and romances, a different developing career, different travels… and, the biggest and most important difference between us is that Sarah has different demons than I do. She completely surprised me halfway through the story by developing an addiction to alcohol. This is one of my biggest revision problems, as alcoholism can become a dangerous cliche in fiction. When I wrote her the first time around, I had no understanding of the disease. I finished the first draft in 2007.
Two years later, while working on revisions, I became aware that a member of my immediate family was an alcoholic. This had been true the whole time I was writing, but my only knowledge of the addiction was the lying, vomitting, violent steriotype in movies. Those extremes make it hard to recognize when you’re living with a milder, more functional version. I have since learned that having a family member with alcoholism almost always results in the nonalcoholic sharing a measure of the disease. I am not much of a drinker, but since 2009 I have been working prodigiously to find the balance between helping people and enabling them. I have been learning not to cover others’ mistakes or fulfill their responsibilities. I have been practicing the art of transparency: working against my instinct to hide information that might upset someone, against my instinct to hide my own needs to avoid conflict. I may not be an alcoholic, but I certainly have my own share of sickness. After putting Sarah away for a couple years, revising her now with new eyes is quite an experience.
Adelle’s story, my current project, deals with memories. I have to be careful about this because I try not to talk much about what I have not yet finished, but in general Adelle’s brain builds walls that trap her memories. She has learned to cope by creating systems to help her move through her daily life, keeps her condition hidden from coworkers, and avoids intimate friendships.
I began writing Adelle’s story in August last year. Three weeks ago, my doctor ordered an MRI that revealed lesions on my brain. I am now going through a battery of secondary tests to find some answers. The neurologist has given me some ideas about what it could be, but I have no official diagnosis right now.
In the wake of this information, doctors have asked a lot of questions that have made me aware of just how precarious my own mind and memory have become. Like Adelle, I can usually remember academic information fairly well. I can remember enough of it, at least, to participate meaningfully in class and sidestep the bits that have gotten lost in the fog. But I have also been forced to see all the systems I have in place as a safety net for my memory. I’ve been driving kids to school and picking them up since 2000, and never once forgot one. But in 2011, I began needing to set my alarm on a daily basis so that I would remember. I have post-its everywhere. I never used them before six months ago. I keep a notebook with me so that if I remember an obligation in the middle of writing or some other task, I can write it down and review the list when I’m done. Otherwise I feel compelled to get up right away and accomplish it because of the danger that I will forget about it until it is too late. I prepare my things for class at least an hour before I have to leave so that I don’t forget materials, but it’s common for me to have to go back to the house up to five times to get things I’ve left behind. My binders are color coded and include professors’ names, class meeting times, and room numbers because sometimes, even months into a semester, I get to campus and forget where I am supposed to go.
So this is what it is about fiction. Even if I think I’m creating a world for a character only a little like me, or not like me at all, ultimately they seem to become prophetic. They don’t tell me my future. They tell my my present. They tell me what I refuse to see otherwise. As a person who spent much of her life hiding truths–one of those secondary alcoholic habits I developed–I think it is just easier for me to work my way to where I am through someone else’s life. It’s less threatening somehow.