Balancing Act

Over the summer, I went to Barnes and Noble.  After searching for memoirs and/or collections of personal essays in the ‘Essay’ section (logical, right?) and came up with nothing, I decided to look elsewhere.  Maybe, I was thinking, the world finally woke up and decided to give Creative Nonfiction its own section in the bookstore. I wandered downstairs, hoping it would be somewhere close to the Biography section.  In fact, the only memoirs Barnes and Noble carried – only twenty or so – were scattered sparsely across a shelf labeled “New Biography.”  New Biography? And I thought this genre had come so far.

Lee Gutkind, editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction, suggests that much of the ‘controversy’ behind creative nonfiction as a genre stems from a scandal with which we’re all familiar: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the questions it raised about what constitutes the truth.  Obviously, a fictional narrative marketed as a memoir is going too far, but what is the other extreme?  A writer who refuses to craft dialogue out of distant memories because he feels this is too much invention?  What would we have then?  An essay that is not creative.  An essay that bows to the truth rather than works around it.

In my Memoir class last spring, I had an instructor who was very clear on his beliefs about truth in creative nonfiction: you follow it, but not to the point of stifling your writing.  It seemed like a very fine line.  For example, Dr. Fincke would tell us that ‘telescoping’ is allowed – the compressing of multiple events into one scene – but only if the happenings on each occasion result in the same thing.  The idea is to be efficient, but not at the cost of suggesting that something resulted from a particular event that did not result from this event.  In addition, it was acceptable to combine two ‘characters’ into one person if these characters had the same impact on the narrative.  Techniques such as these are meant to eliminate confusion in memoir: it’s difficult for the reader to extract deep insights if she is preoccupied with trying to make sense of your family history.  However, once a writer is armed with these techniques,  he will interpret them how he likes, leaving us with no sense of consistency, no clear guideline, as to how to proceed with the idea of truth in creative nonfiction.

It’s one thing to hear from an instructor that it’s acceptable to telescope your scenes and characters, but it’s another thing entirely to sit down to write and realize that, according to your instructor’s guidelines, your friend Lulu and your friend Fred can become one character.  Every time I have deliberately tried to use one of the tricks Dr. Fincke outlined, I have felt guilty about it.  Unclean, almost.  Though in the long run, combining two characters in the interest of saving valuable space (and therefore reader attention span) is not hurting anyone, it’s the principle of it: if this is okay, what else becomes okay?  If someone has no qualms about combining two characters, who’s to say he won’t later decide that eliminating a character entirely is along the same lines?  Because it is – in a logical sense – but it all depends upon this character’s effect on the narrative.  Will eliminating this character change the writer’s narrative – perhaps make it more compelling, more likely to sell at Barnes and Noble?  Suddenly, with the knowledge of one simple writing technique, questions spring up in every direction.

I have, on occasion, caught myself stretching the truth in my creative nonfiction.  Not outright lying, but I have found that when I am embarrassed to write about something, I tend to gloss over the situation, altering the dialogue that actually transpired into dialogue that is less embarrassing.  It’s very self-serving – I don’t want my readers to think certain things about me.  But every time I do that in a first draft, I find that, nine times out of ten, I revise later drafts to more accurately reflect the truth.  For example, in one memoir, I changed a scene of dialogue so that I wouldn’t have to talk about menstruation.  I never stopped feeling funny about it, though.  Every time I looked at that scene my stomach would twist, and I’d think, Yeah, okay, I get it – I have more of a conscience than James Frey.  But what am I supposed to do about it?

Another one of my creative nonfiction instructors is more liberal about the concept of truth.  His philosophy is that as long as the feeling of a particular moment is echoed in the writing – as long as the events described result in a truthful reflection – then the memoir is successful, and completely ethical.  This is such a broad belief, though – there is so much room for loopholes.  So much room for stubborn justification (yeah, it happened!), for untruthful pieces that slip through because the writer insisted that the emotion behind it was accurate.

What am I supposed to do? It’s not an easily answered question.  After all, if we’re given no techniques, no “Go ahead and build that scene, add some dialogue; it’s fine that you don’t really remember it – you remember enough,” then we’d end up with stiff essays, essays without impact, without staying power.  But these go-aheads sometimes register in writer’s heads as a free pass: No, it’s fine, you don’t have to be honest here; nobody else is, after all.  How honest can you be? But it’s not a free pass.  It’s a ticket one must pay for, a coupon, maybe, but an expensive buy nonetheless.  Because it’s a balancing act.  It’s a question the writer must ask himself over and over again, finding new ways to answer it with each scene he completes.


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