Friday, September 15, 2017

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla, a writer in my New York classes many years ago, completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II.  I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters.  I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous.  Although calling it a novel seems untruthful.  In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction.  Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 
"And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters.  I think these old photos really add to the story.  Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?"
 
The First Big Question:  What's Really True?
Camilla's question is common to many memoirists.  First, we must ask ourselves:  What is a memoir? 

It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life (not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it).  Most memoirs revolve around a theme or event.  Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre.  They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives. 

Now it's different.  Memoir is hot genre.  It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing.  Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read:  not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers. 
Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true.  And this has led to the big question:  How much of memoir needs to be true?  How can we really remember accurately?  And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life? 
Reliability of Memory--An Oxymoron?
Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book I Could Tell You Stories, writes about this dilemma:   "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory." 
Add to that brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something.  What's a memoirist to do?
How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?
This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers.  Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:
the emotional truth
the factual truth
Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step. 
What's in a Name?  Fake Memoirs
Some writers haven't bothered.  They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate.  Thus was born the "fake memoir." 
A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey.   His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and  Oprah denounced him on air. 
Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences.  When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves.   
But this is not new.  Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones:  Two  favorites, The Education of Little Tree (1976) and Mutant Message Down Under (1991), were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized. 
I loved both of these books.  I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life.  The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia.   Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith.  But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.
Who likes to be lied to?   I don't.  I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read. 
But I do love a great story.  I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.
So here's the rub.  The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under,  drew me in as a reader.  Good stories, well told.  It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case.  But the books still engaged me.  Am I a flawed person to think this?  Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.
So there's the line:  Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer? 
Back to Camilla's question.
True-Life Novels and Faction Books
Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today:  the true-life novel or faction book. 
Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses.  Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel." 
Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew.  And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel. 
Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has a "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night.  Where's the line here, as far as genre?  These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not.  Where's the line? 
Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.
Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion.  As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate. 
"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained.  For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real.  But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged. 
This comes back to my original question:  where do you stand on the line?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ten Things I've Learned by Finishing My Novel

In August, I took a month away from work, phones, and other people's writing to focus on the final edits for my novel.  It's been a long, hard, exciting road. 

Looking back, I slightly astonished by how naive I was when I began.  It's been five years in the making, and I couldn't have done it in any less time.  Enthusiasm and determination carried me through the first two years.  I hit bottom then, and I was pulled out by taking writing classes and getting together a feedback group.  They lasted a year or so.  Then I hit bottom again, almost ditched the project.  An agent, who did not end up taking the book, gave me excellent revision ideas.  That flattened me (she wanted another project from me, not this one, but my heart was in this book and I had to finish it).  But eventually I picked myself up and started the revisions.  I realized I needed more skill in certain areas, so I found yet another group of writing partners and a for-hire editor to learn from.  Two more years of revision and I feel confident enough to send it to my beta readers and begin the search for an agent now that mine has retired. 

But I wanted to pause, celebrate the milestone.  I remembered a cool writing exercise shared by a friend long ago, and it filled the bill. 

I'll post my own responses, then you can consider what you'd say about your book--no matter where you are in its conception or manifestation or publication process.
Acknowledging Your Progress:  A Writing Exercise 
1.  Look back on the time you've been working on this book.  It may be months or many years.  Consider who you were, as a writer, when you began, and what you know now.  
2.  Write a list of ten things you've learned. 
3.  Spend time reflecting on these, how valuable they are, how hard won, how easy. 

Note:  It may feel too self-congratulatory to attempt this.  Don't bother about that.  It's supposed to be a moment of congratulations and acknowledgement.  All writers need this kind of shine occasionally.  It doesn't mean you're getting a big head--we all know writing is hard. 
My list:
1.  One of the reasons I read is for meaning, or how the river of a theme runs under a good story.  In the beginning, I had a certain vision for my book's theme.  I learned how much bigger it was, as I revised.  I learned how to let it grow organically, which isn't easy!   
2.  This project was the most complicated I've ever tried, in terms of plot and multiple narrative voices.  It demanded much more drafting, structuring, and revising time.  I anticipated two years; it took five.  I learned patience with my own process.

3.  The characters surprised me.  Like getting to know people in real life, it took time to get to know their motivations, longings, and secrets.  I learned the most about my characters from my readers.  I learned to listen to my readers.   

4.  The original story line is vastly different from what the book became.  I had to start somewhere, but then let it grow into its own uniqueness.  I learned how hard it is for writers to give up their original vision--a painful process that took time and lots of help.  What we don't know we don't know, eh? 

5.  I had to be willing to be vulnerable on the page.  A lot of my truths, my life values, got woven into the story.  Not facts but truths.  I felt very exposed at times and I had to sit with that, decide if it was OK, dial it back if needed. 

6.  It took a LOT of editing.  I spent months just reading the pages out loud and wordsmithing.  My standards are much higher than they ever were.  I wanted it to be the best it could.  I learned how much time this takes.

7.  It also took a lot of fact checking and research.  Thanks to the keen eyes of my writing partners and experts I consulted, I think I got crash landings, explosions, and other oddities accurate on the page. 

8.  I needed a lot of rest breaks.  And new readers when my writing groups, sadly, disbanded.  I started taking classes to meet new feedback partners and fresh readers.  I learned to risk seeking them out.

9.  I learned how to pace myself for the long haul--not a skill I've excelled at much of my life (I tend to write for hours, forgetting to eat, sleep, fill in the blank).   I learned to set a timer for 45 minutes (a great amount of time to stay focused) and take a water or stretch break, or just look around and remember where I was.

10.  I needed community more than I realized.  I took steps to find others at my experience level and talk about the writing life, to get ideas and encouragement.  Writers can't go it alone and stay whole; we need other writers more than we know.

What are your 10?