My author L has been thinking, and I’m trying to help her out. Look at my photo — I’ve even tried to strike the right attitude. I found a picture of The Thinker and I’m doing my best, but my joints are not so well hinged as his. I can’t wind myself around myself quite the way he does.
The topic L’s been pondering is how to take what she’s learned from writing creative nonfiction and apply it to the novel she’s writing about me. Because L’s nonfiction, which stems mostly from events in her own life, seems to be working the way she wants it to work, while the novel isn’t quite there yet. Almost, but not quite. One lovely day last June she had tea and conversation with one of her wonderful mentors, and during the conversation her mentor asked if there might be something to be learned from this nonfiction endeavour — something that could apply to the process of writing fiction.
During the months of May and June, when she was putting together a manuscript of creative nonfiction and writing all day and well into the night for a couple of months, L had notes to herself posted on the walls of her office. They’re still up there. One is a question and two are commandments. The question is written on a scrap of paper and tacked to the bulletin board: Is there something more here? The first commandment is a tin sign L bought at a discount store, and it’s the word Dare. The second commandment is a quotation from the physiotherapist who coached her through a weight-lifting class. It’s on a yellow sticky-note stuck to the wall: Never give up under the weight. These are up on the wall as reminders that it’s her job as a writer to delve below surfaces. Reminders, because it would be so much easier not to. So much easier, but she knows that just because something happened to her, and just because her own life is endlessly interesting to her, there’s no reason to think a reader would give a flying flock about the little events in her little life. Unless, in the course of relating them, she makes some worthwhile exploration, lands on an insight or a burning question or two.
(I feel I should say something about that expression, flying flock: As I explain in the novel L’s writing about me, I’ve overcome my foul-mouthed history and replaced my lame swearing with equally lame euphemisms, which have their own beauty. Take a second to imagine a flying flock.)
Fiction, nonfiction, memoir, truth, dare. Yesterday the spring catalogue for Coteau Books showed up in L’s mailbox. Among the featured titles is a book of linked short stories by another of L’s mentors, Dave Margoshes. The book is called A Book of Great Worth (a bold title, if ever there was one). This will be a very good book, and L is looking forward to reading it. The stories are about a character “loosely based” on Margoshes’s own father. Here’s something Margoshes says about his book: “All the stories in the series walk that precarious tightrope between memoir and fiction…. I worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir — like truth.”
Interesting. Especially interesting to L, because when L writes about her own life and the characters in it — as she does in most of her nonfiction — it doesn’t sound like memoir in the sense Dave Margoshes is describing. Her own nonfiction is better described as anti-memoir. It’s fragmented. Only rarely does it proceed from A through B to C in an expository style. Sometimes it spirals around and around and up. Sometimes it hops from stepping to stone to stepping stone. Sometimes it makes a chain, link-to-link-to-link.
Still, she’s looking to say something “like truth” with it, just as she’s looking to do in the novel about me and my life and my experiences. All these pieces of writing, all these styles of writing, talk to each other. I’m happy to be part of the conversation. And I do think L has something to learn by thinking about these things.