I find that when I am wrestling with a question the universe challenges me by adding fuel to my musings. Not answers, really. Just more angles to consider.
A few months ago a good friend asked me to read his WIP, a memoir. I read the first few chapters, and then slowed down and started again. His writing made two things very clear. First, that this is a painful mining of his past. And second, that he is a very talented writer. But, in my opinion, telling the truth was getting in the way of telling the story.
And then I heard an interview of an author who had written a novel that was based on the death of his wife. When asked why it wasn’t a memoir, he said that it was his truth but that others, including and especially his wife’s mother, would disagree with his truth. Deciding to make the book a novel freed him up to go to dark places, and tell the story completely.
And then the Mike Daisey/This American Life story broke. And truth v. storytelling, theater v. journalism and other points of discussion were parsed in many forums, and with high emotion. As a theater person I have had a number of conversations about this in the last week. But is it is the idea of memoir v. novel that I’ve been wrestling with as a writer.
Now, I value truth as much as anyone. And quantifiable truth should be respected. But to tell a good story (not a piece of journalism, a story) I think the truth gets in the way. Feeling that you have to adhere to a timeline, when condensing scenes or rearranging them would make it more powerful? Fiction wins. Having all five of your aunts in your story, when you could compile one composite aunt character to help the reader keep track? One aunt wins. Making those changes and still considering your work memoir? Doesn’t work.
And here’s the other reason I advocate making it up. You become braver. You make those emotional leaps you may avoid for fear of hurting feelings. Or you face your own truth, and spin it a bit so that you can tell it without panic. Or you can be harder on yourself, or easier. You can use your truth to inform the story, and use your craft to tell it the best way possible. And that may mean playing with the facts. Which makes it fiction.
And in fiction, truth is overrated.
J.A. Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource. She is a mystery writer who has her story “Her Wish” published in DEAD CALM, an anthology by Level Best Books. She is a huge social media fan, and tweets under @JulieHennrikus. She wrestles with allusions of athleticism, is an avid theater goer and a proud member of Red Sox nation. Her website is jahennrikus.com