Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Friday, August 27, 2010


Every time I'm in a nonfiction class (as in personal essay, memoir), the question of veracity and factualism inevitably comes up. Can I make up what color shirt I was wearing when I was five? If I remember the gist of a conversation, can I invent the dialogue? Can I write this scene to serve my emotional truth, my psychological reality, rather than the literal truth? Annie Dillard's imaginary cat will be mentioned. Someone will bring up Judy Blunt's green typewriter that her uncle didn't actually destroy with a sledgehammer in a fit of anger. James Frey's novel sold as memoir.

In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields argues that every time we put pen to paper, every time we open our mouths, every we time we recall a memory, we are creating fiction. By deciding which memory to include in our memoir and which to leave out we are shaping our reality fictitiously. By using words to describe what was a physical incident we depart from the facts. By using metaphor we are giving coherence and form to meaningless circumstances. By remembering at all we are changing, shaping, creating. What is more faulty than a memory?

David Shields: "Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir. I want the contingency of life, the unpredictability, the unknowability, the mysteriousness, and these are best captured when the work can bend at will to what it needs: fiction, fantasy, memoir, meditation, confession, reportage."

So where do you draw the line? Do you invent a scene because it illustrates your emotional truth? Do you blend fact and fiction to keep your readers on their toes, or in order to make a better story, or just for the fun of it, because writing is an inherently creative act? Because the world is uncertain and our writing should be too?

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