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Friday, January 8, 2010

Writing about "What Really Happened"

New writers often tap autobiographical material, writing short stories, novels, poems or memoirs. Three of those forms claim to be fiction. Memoir holds itself out as non-fiction. Yet, the line between fiction and non-fiction blurs easily – a fact revealed painfully to Jonathan Frantzen, author of A Million Little Pieces. His “memoir” turned out to be a cleverly written novel. This sin cost him a tongue lashing from Oprah on national television. Ouch! The same sin in reverse, passing off memoir as fiction, usually draws only a knowing wink or a mild rebuke.

With a little care, however, you can safely exploit the blurriness of the line between fiction and non-fiction. In middle of that blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, you will find the natural habitat of great stories. If you bravely explore that territory, you will discover bizarre beasts easily captured for your story telling purposes. The trouble with “the truth” is that it doesn’t necessarily make for a shapely story. In real life, events don’t necessarily happen in the right order to create a good story. The timing of events doesn’t work. An argument on the telephone may have been more dramatic as a face-to-face encounter. Fiction gives the writer free range to fix the problems reality imposed on the story.

If you blur the line in favor of fiction, reality provides powerful scenes, situations and insights for storytelling. Unfettered by “what really happened,” you are free to invent characters, scenes and events to give your story shape and drama. Research and interviews can add local color, help you find a hook for your story and suggest characters that would advance the story.
If you blur the line in favor of memoir, “what really happened” provides you with some firm constraints. You can’t move your story Memphis to Milan, nor are you free to invent characters or events. If it was warm and the sun was shining, you can’t write in a blizzard.

You can, however, use the tools of a fiction writer to enhance your memoir while staying inside the constraints imposed by memoir. In both types of stories you can do research that adds context and realistic details to the story. For example, if your memoir concerns spending a week in San Francisco in 1990, a little reflection will remind you that you used a pay phone, not a cell phone, to make those pivotal calls.

Some research will tell you what movies were showing that week and which songs were on the radio. Photographs from that time period will refresh your memory of how the city looked and way people dressed at that time. A trip to the library will let you look at that week’s newspaper to verify the weather conditions and refresh your memory of the news of that week. A phone book from the era will remind you of the location of the restaurant where you had lunch that last day in the city.

You can mine your life experiences for both fiction and non-fiction stories. Just remember the guidelines that apply to each type of writing. And don’t let Oprah catch you trying to pass your fiction off as what really happened.

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