This is (not) my beautiful life
A novelist wonders how far you should manipulate experiences to write an engaging memoir
Published: July 1, 2011
|Not long ago, I sat at a bar with a writer friend, a memoirist, talking about a skydiving trip he had planned. He said that he would write about it, and then added, “I only do things so I can write about them.”|
This took me aback. I’d been talking about the problems I had with working my past into memoir. The most compelling period of my life was the five years in the 1990s that I’d spent in a successful rock band, the Refreshments, but I’d forgotten to party like a rock star. Compared to the flood of memoirs on similar subjects, my rock ’n’ roll memoir without a lot of debauchery might as well be about car insurance. I’d begun to regret not having more provocative stuff to write about, which I hadn’t regretted at the time.
My lack of colorful personal material hadn’t bothered me until recently. I’ve spent the last 14 years writing novels, because novels are what drew me to writing. Novels are what I love. But one would have to be as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon not to see that memoirs are looking very novel-like these days, both in content and sales figures. I’ve also had little success publishing my novels, so after finishing three, I’m ready to compromise. My memoirist friend had sold something like 100,000 copies of his book, ensuring a career in writing and a solid readership for years to come. I was all ears.
After all, even though I became a writer in the age of John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, implied in many of their works was the hint of autobiography. With Updike, I was fascinated by what in the character of Rabbit Angstrom was Rabbit and what was Updike himself. I’d read a biography on Bellow that revealed that many if not most of his protagonists were cut directly from his life. Part of the thrill of reading these writers was wondering what was thinly veiled autobiography and what was made up.
With the shift of much readerly attention from the realistic novel to the memoir, the new focus isn’t, as in realistic fiction, where the author is hiding herself in her work. It’s what isn’t 100 percent true in her work. Think James Frey. Instead of reading fiction and looking for facts, we’re reading facts and looking for fiction.
No matter the form, readers are voyeurs. We always want what’s on the page to generate subtext, implication, rumor. We want to know what the author doesn’t want us to know. That hasn’t changed as interest has shifted from the novel to the memoir.
For writers, however, the difference between writing novels and writing memoir is significant. The more you invent in your work, the less likely you can call what you write a memoir, which for those writing in the realistic long form seems the best path to publication these days.
And for the writer who wants to write memoir, it becomes necessary to live more, to do things the fiction writer need only imagine. With memoir, if you don’t live it, you can’t write it—or at least you can’t write it in a way that suggests it actually happened—which forces every event you want in your memoir into the public realm. This can prove worrisome for writers, who, by the nature of their work, are often cloistered.
I’m not suggesting anyone should cry a river because a few novelists have to come out of the basement and live a little. But consider this scenario.
Let’s say I want to write a memoir about my intense interest in writer Steve Almond. I’d model it on Nicholson Baker’s memoir U and I—a favorite memoir of mine—which is about Baker’s intense interest in Updike. I’d call my memoir A and I. I’d start it with my first encounter with Almond’s book of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, almost 10 years ago, and I’d go on to include my jealous avoidance of said book for eight years; my eventual reading and loving of the book; my fortuitous communication with Almond online; my interview with him for The Nervous Breakdown; and my awkward, 10-second (I timed it) bum-rushing of him at the 2010 Wordstock event in Portland, Ore.
I think this book is a great idea, and one I could pull off, but I immediately sense how the book could be better if I had more material. And, of course, with memoir, I couldn’t just make that material up. I’d have to do more Almond-related things. I’d have to read more of his work. I might apply to the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, where Almond is often a presenter and instructor. I could talk to him at the workshop’s readings. I could engage him in a one-on-one session ostensibly about my work, mining new experiences for my memoir. I could even “script” a few instances, finding subjects to ask him about in order to get his reactions.
And, of course, I wouldn’t have to stop with the workshop. What about following him around the country on one of his book tours? Or hanging out in his hometown? Or stalking him? Before you know it, I’m living my life to write the best book I can about my connections with Steve Almond.
Is this kind of dedication to subject unusual? Of course not. Many writers sacrifice a great deal to create the best work possible. One could argue I’ve dedicated the last 14 years of my life to writing novels. It’s what writers do.
But here’s what would be wrong with this scenario. This hypothetical life I would live to write A and I is not really me. It’s not the true me. I love Almond’s work, and I think he’s vital to our contemporary literary culture, but I’m not really obsessed with him. I wouldn’t want to make him uncomfortable by following him around and involving him in my false life. The memoir form makes me want to pretend I’m obsessed with Almond when in fact I’m really just interested in him.
Now, I could imagine being obsessed with him, and that’s where the novelist in me would take off writing a novel called A and I. The events I’ve manufactured above are just as easily imaginable from what I already know about Almond.
Of course, I could always know more, and no doubt doing some of the tasks I mention would yield more real-life information to cull a good story from, but isn’t that always going to be the case? There’s never going to come a day when fictionalizing A and I, at least a little, isn’t going to yield a better book, to my mind. I’m a fiction writer. Making things up is what I do.
The line between living and manipulating your life for the sake of your art is blurry. Where exactly does an artist’s life go from extreme dedication to a falsehood? What if I actually wanted to go to the Tin House workshop and study with Almond, and memoir-worthy things happened there? What if I really wanted to follow him around the country to attend each of his readings and ask him new questions every night? That might be a sincere life for someone, and maybe that someone should write a memoir about those experiences.
And can I honestly claim innocence to the crime of manipulating one’s life for the sake of one’s work? Didn’t I live my life in rock ’n’ roll with one eye toward my future writing life? Of course I did. I always knew that those goings-on might make good material someday, and I kept my eyes open. I can even remember one of my bandmates asking, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, are you going to write about us?” I responded, only half-jokingly, “Hey, anything you guys say or do from here on out is fair game.”
It’s times like these that fiction writers can sympathize with James Frey. Here’s a guy who lived his life, and then imagined ways that life could make for a great story. He writes that story and is faced with an industry and readership that wants to call it a memoir. Sure, why not? It’s almost a memoir, and the advance is how much?
But in the end such books are fiction, just like Goodbye, Columbus and Couples and A House for Mr. Biswas and Junky are fiction. If those books came out today, the authors might be compelled to call them memoirs, but they’ll always be novels to me.
As tough as it is to draw a line be-tween novels and memoirs, readers clearly want that line drawn. They say so with their dollars. So what if A Million Little Pieces is more fictionalized than A Fan’s Notes? It doesn’t make a lick of difference to the reading experience—a story is a story. The reader likes it or doesn’t—and the reader might not buy the book if it doesn’t fall into the genre he wants.
And the line between an artist’s life and her work can be just as blurry. It's up to each writer to decide if her life informs her work, or is contrived for the sake of it.
Art Edwards’ second novel, Ghost Notes, won the 2009 PODBRAM award for best work of contemporary fiction. His nonfiction has appeared at The Rumpus and Writers’ Dojo, and he regularly contributes to The Nervous Breakdown. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is currently shopping his third novel, Badge. Web: artedwards.com.|
Would you do something out of character if you thought it would land you a book deal? Please post your comments below.