Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Complications of Writing from Life

On Fictional Memoirs, Reality Fiction, and more

At the recent Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference I took a workshop called “Two Truths and a Lie,” the object of which was to explore the intersections between memoir and fiction, self-writing and other-writing, autobiography and the novel…you get the point. It was taught by Michelle Tea, herself the author of several hybrid books that she referred to as “fictional memoirs,” a term I don’t think I’d heard before. Tea’s books, which are amazing sort of punk queer coming of age narratives, are all deeply informed by her own history but slide between non-fiction and fiction in representing specific characters and situations.

Before this class I reflexively scoffed at the idea of fictional memoir (despite not having known the exact term, despite the fact that if I think about it I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few of them). Fictionalizing your memoir, I assumed, meant that you’d changed the boring parts of your life into parts that would sell better, making your boss at the car dealership a sadist and your gynecologist a pervert, because, as James Frey knows, nice people are just not as interesting.

Tea’s class changed my mind on the matter. She brought in several examples of writers whose novels are pretty much memoirs, including Laurie Week’s hypnotically good book Zipper Mouth. The autobiographical content of this novel isn’t there to be scandalous (although the book does involve a lot of drugs); it’s there because it’s part of Week’s authentic self, because the novel wouldn’t be the same without it. Weeks has the same impulse that I believe the writers of the new, much discussed HBO series Girls do: to infuse fiction with lived reality such that it has the potential to crack fiction’s artifice and access a deeper level of authenticity.

At the time of the workshop I happened to be reading, in the way of these sorts of coincidences, two other books that speak to this confluence of fiction and reality, art and life. Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station is about a poet on a Fulbright to Spain. Wait a hot second—LERNER was a poet on a Fulbright to Spain! Though the name of the main character is Adam Gordon, and though the book is called a “novel,” I have no reason to believe the events depicted didn’t happen the way they did. Even if they didn’t, it feels like they did. This is in large part due to Lerner’s decision not to take any “cheap shots” to make his fiction more “exciting” or “plot driven” (actually, all of the writers discussed here eschew the conventional trappings of plot). Because usually, life is happening elsewhere, as Lerner dramatizes through a g-chat conversation Adam has with a friend. This friend is recounting something genuinely crazy, the kind of life-altering story that would typically happen in the climax of a novel, but the Lerner/Gordon character can only experience this event through g-chat; and in this way, the distance he has from “real life” makes the novel seem all the more real—-because come on, when does anything ever happen to any of us? I know I for one spend my days blogging, which prevents me from actually doing anything I could conceivably write about.

I’ve also recently finished Are You My Mother?, the latest installment in the life story of one of my personal heroes, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Though we are meant to read the book for all practical purposes as a completely true-to-life account, the word “memoir” is notably absent from the cover, replaced with the somewhat enigmatic phrase “comic drama.” There are quite a few weighty themes in this book, which focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her mother and the interior landscape of psychoanalysis, but for the purposes of the current discussion what struck me was the degree to which Bechdel went to reproduce reality. She takes documents such as old photographs, journal entries, even a page from Dr. Seuss, and re-draws them, sticking close to the original style or production quality while adding, in a rather thrilling palimpsest, the slightest layer of her own interpretation.

So why the redrawing? Why not just scan a copy of the document in? Similarly and more broadly, if writing straight from life provides the greatest degree of authenticity, why write fiction at all?

I wasn’t entirely sure myself, but fortunately the New Yorker’s resident literary critic James Wood has lately been suggesting some answers. In a recent review of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Wood writes that Mantel has produced “a third category of reality, the plausibly hypothetical.” The “plausibly hypothetical” strikes me as a great way to conceive of why many autobiographically-driven fiction writers don’t write “straight” memoir: because they want to create a reality that combines fictional reality with real reality. Relating an event, detail, or character that COULD HAVE happened somehow gives that event a wider purview, elevates it to the kind of symbolic significance we typically assign to works of fiction. This is probably one reason why the above authors aren’t calling their books memoirs (or maybe “novel” just sounds cooler, which says something about the contemporary state of the memoir).

In another recent review, this time of autobiographical novelist Sheila Heti’s latest book (subtitled “A Novel From Life”), Wood writes that we are in a “contemporary literary movement that is impatient with conventional fiction-making.” So it’s not just coincidence that the books I’ve been reading, TV shows I’ve been watching and workshop(s) I’ve been attending have all used reality to move fiction away from the “conventional.” It’s all part of a trend, which is comforting, since I love being part of trends (that’s why I have big black plastic-framed glasses, after all). What’s equally comforting is that all this movement toward life-writing seems only to be strengthening, rather than detracting from, the vitality of contemporary fiction.