Fact and Fiction in Writing

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I’m putting in this post especially for Esther, who asked me to include an essay on the topic of writing. This one has been published elsewhere in Island magazine. It started out as a paper I presented at a University of Newcastle conference last year, whose central them was on ‘Tensions Between the real and the fictional: The Art of the real’.

Coming Clean: Tensions between the factual and the fictional in Autobiography.

In 1995 I wrote a series of letters to my nine siblings and invited them to join me in the writing of a book. We could each write a chapter, I suggested, on some aspect of our experience of growing up in the same troubled household. In my fantasy, I imagined that I might choose a particular day, one in which certain things happened – the day my father threw the radiator at my mother in a drunken rage; the day my oldest brother stormed out of the house goaded on by my father’s taunts, not to be seen again for three years; the day my father tore down the Christmas tree. I might choose such a day and each one of us could write about it.

I soon realised it would not work. It could not work. For one thing, we were not all at home at the same time. There are eighteen years between us. By the time the youngest was born, the oldest had left. As well, each of us had different experiences of childhood; even those in the middle, who spent at least ten years together. We all have different memories.

My brothers and sisters wrote back to me. Some were agreeable, but the older boys were reluctant to hand over editorial control. One, himself, a writer, wanted to produce and publish his own work before he could think in terms of ‘contributing to another’s brainchild’; another sent me a piece of philosophical writing that made little sense to me, as an example of his potential contribution; one sister complained my writing would ‘open a can of worms’; while yet another brother has since forbidden me to mention him or his doings in any of my writing.

When this brother sent me the email that said as much, I thought I would die. His words, so simple on the page, were powerful.
‘You were mistaken,’ he wrote, ‘to think I had not received your email. I have simply chosen to ignore it.’ I sat at the keyboard frozen. I had tried to reach out across the gulf of oceans, across the gulf of skies to make contact yet again, after all the years of silence, and all he could say was ‘go away. You’re not wanted in my life. You’re not welcome.’

Here, you see, I have lapsed into a sort of fiction, lyrical and embellished, driven by the passion stirred up in me by this real life experience. The fictional relies on imagination, non-fiction on the factual. It is a fact, as I remember, that I had not had contact with my brother for many years and that having sent two emails in a bid to regain contact, my brother finally emailed that response. It is a fact that I sat at my keyboard after reading my brother’s words, frozen in a way that was familiar to me, my response to childhood rejections and it is a fact that I telephoned my brother there and then, deciding that another email response would be useless. I needed to talk to him, to convince him that he was wrong about the motives he had ascribed to me. He never answered my call and the cold war continues. This then becomes the fiction, the stuff I make up in my imagination because I do not know what my brother’s experience is, only mine, but I imagine his rage with me continues unabated in the silence over the last two years. As does mine. Such is the stuff of family relationships, the fact and the fiction.

It is a fact. I have evidence. My brother did send me such an email. And at the time I felt gutted, and even now, with time, the words still hold their power on the page, though I have distanced myself from them through my writing. My brother might well challenge my version of events, as I might challenge his, but we move on further into estrangement. Perhaps now I cannot write about my brother directly but I can write something of the experience of being silenced, to present something of the emotional truth, though my brother again might claim I have exaggerated the truth into a fiction. Roy Pascal writing about autobiography argues that ‘Even if what [autobiographers] tell us is not factually true, or only partly true, it always is true evidence of their personality.’ (Pascal, 1960, p.1) Personality is an aggregate of qualities, an impression of the person. It is not a fact.

Focussing on the work of the neurologist, Antonio Damasio, on ‘the body’s story’, Paul John Eakin suggests that the purpose of self-narrative is ‘the maintenance of stability in the human individual through the creation of a sense of identity’ both in the body and mind, a type of homeostasis. (Eakin, 2005, p.4) The ‘I’ of the first person, both the ‘I’ narrator and the ‘I’ protagonist, according to Eakin, papers over the fact that we are no longer who we were. Each day we wake up a different person. We constantly remodel the past to accommodate the needs of the person we become in the present. Eakin believes, therefore, that the ‘back story’, the story of the story, is as important as the story being told. The back-story may well be the true story but its telling almost always involves a degree of interpretation and therefore to some extent the fictional uses of imagination. When we read between the lines, we are inventing, yet our inventions more often than not are based on some sort of truth, some sort of non-verbal communication that may well be denied. At the time of my brother’s email he had been stricken with a serious melanoma on his back. The surgeons had dug out two deep holes to rid him of the cancer. As a child my brother had also been bedridden for over a year with osteomyelitis. The surgeons then had taken a lump out of his leg. How much might these physical experiences of helplessness and vulnerability, the one resonating with the other, affect my brother’s state of mind. In the latter part of his email my brother forbade me to write about him ever. Am I disobeying here? I do not identify him. I do not travel under my maiden name, but it would not be impossible to locate the truth of his identity. The anxiety I have experienced all my life and my brother’s admonitions are silencing. Must I write this then as a fiction to preserve his right to privacy, to protect myself from litigation? Or can I tell my version of what happened, my version of the ‘truth’, bearing in mind there is no such thing as absolute truth, only a sense of truthfulness.

The truth, the real, is fluid, not static, though once written it can become static, and in this sense it can distort what really happened. (Eakin, 2006) Although, as Eakin suggests, ‘autobiographers and their readers’, and here I would include creative non-fiction writers and their readers, continue to believe that ‘autobiography is devoted to the recovery of the past’ as close to the truthfulness of that past as possible, when in fact ‘we are steadily moving away from the past into the future and we want to bridge the gap’. It is during the often-unconscious process of bridging the gaps that the reporting of facts can shift into fiction. Memory researchers today argue that ‘past experience is necessarily – both psychologically and neurologically – constructed anew in each memory event or act of recall’. (Eakin, 1999, p. 107) In my family the recollection of events, even if it were possible that there were times when we could all be together, must be multiplied time and time again. New perspectives emerge every time each one of us tells our story.

Nancy Miller writes, when she first worked as a theorist of autobiography, that she took Philippe Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ (Miller, 148) literally, believing autobiographers should be obliged to reach for the ‘verifiable’ truth of the experiences to which they assign their names and that any ‘strategies of fictionalisation’ are contrary to the art of autobiography. But when she settled down to write her own memoir she came ‘to realise that there were gaps that could be filled in only by leaps of the imagination, and scenes that I could recreate through dialogues that were anything but verifiable.’…When Miller sits down to remember her past, she relies on her memory; but ‘when memory fails,’ she writes, ‘I let language lead. The words take me where I need to go’ (Miller, 150).

I remember once walking along a cliff edge in single file with six of my brothers and sisters. The two oldest ones had left home by then. I was fourteen. Between the thick tangle of tea tree on one side and the cliff wall on the other I looked out over the crescent shaped bay at Mentone. We had spent the day on the beach and were now making our way to the bus stop and then home. I did not want to go home; my father would be drunk and abusive. Then the thought came into my mind that I was one of the luckiest people alive – I had no need for friends. I had a readymade cohort of friends living at home with me in the form of my sisters and brothers. I need never feel lonely. This was the same ‘I’ who later went off to boarding school, taken in free of charge by the nuns because we had to leave home suddenly after my father’s drinking became intolerable, the same ‘I’ who became a religious zealot, in the hope of joining another group, the nuns, my teachers, so that again I might never be lonely. I had constructed in my mind, a happy family but the harmony between siblings that my adult self remembers is a fiction, certainly then and maybe even more so now as I describe it.

I cringe at the memory of this girl, smug, goody two shoes, always trying to please, always grovelling and saying the things she imagined her teachers liked to hear about the goodness of God and the wickedness of the world. I developed this Pollyanna persona against the backdrop of my boarding school peers, who at that time were swooning over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and hitching up their tunics to attract the boys, whom we never saw, locked away as we were behind school walls, except occasionally on weekends when we were given permission to go to town. I listened only to classical music. I never wanted to go to town. I wanted only to stay in the convent and to do my schoolwork, never to stray in the direction of evil and temptation.

I cannot say at exactly what point this persona changed. Perhaps around the same time that many others change – at university, outside the confines of my family and the church, when I was left alone. The old fictions ceased to protect me and I needed to develop new stories for myself, both about the past and also its influence on the present.

All of this I write from the perspective of mature adulthood. The truthfulness of it is open to conjecture. Perhaps if I could interview people from that time they might tell me otherwise. They might hold a different view, but most likely they would scarcely remember me, so caught up in their own lives at the time, while my siblings are as unreliable in their memories of me as I am of them. So what are these things called the real, the true, and the factual? There are demonstrable facts; that I was born on a particular day, in a particular place, that I have certain physical attributes I possessed then and now. Of course these change. I can say these things because I write about myself and no one need contradict me, but were I to write about someone else, even my interpretation of the facts of physical appearance might come under challenge. My brother, for instance, is he a fact or is he a fiction? He exists in reality but on the page he becomes my construction. If you met him, you might find him different from the brief outline I offer here.

In an earlier draft of this paper I quoted extensively from other writers who use their own personal experience as the subject of their writing, from Helen Garner and Janet Malcolm and from academics in the field of creative non-fiction, the so-called fourth genre. They are wonderful quotes and offer me a place to hide behind rather than to trust my own autobiographical impulses that say to me again and again, that writing about oneself is invariably a fiction, however honest we may try to be. The moment we step out of ourselves our perspective alters. We look at ourselves from outside and see ourselves from a different perspective to that of the inside. Our perception is distorted but given that no one, not even ourselves, can have access to that inner self in all its thinking and detail, then no one can write the truth about themselves except as a fiction. As Margaret Atwood argues, ‘The mere act of writing splits the self in two’. (Atwood, 2002, p. 32) Even during the process of writing this paper I wind up using fictional techniques to create an image of myself, the writer writing about the process of writing.

The tension between what is real and what is fiction continues throughout our lives, not just in written texts, but also in everyday conversations. Like a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, which plays on the changes that take place the moment we share information, passing from one person to another. As Janet Malcolm writes ‘the instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when re-told.’ (Malcolm, 2008, p 186)

Despite this many people still want to believe that anything written under the non-fiction label must be true, must be real, must have happened, even when they know this cannot be. Yet, if we are to take the arguments of academics like Andrew Furman seriously, then writers of non-fiction should do their utmost to write the truth as best they can. (Furman, 2007) According to Furman this involves getting the facts right, through research and interviews. No improvising. If we do blur reality and imagination we must declare the ambiguity of our position from the start: I am writing about this but I cannot remember it clearly so I make it up. I am writing about a time when I was not there, so of course I must make it up. I am writing from hearsay, the story my mother, my aunt, my grandfather told me, fifty years ago, so I improvise in order to allow a coherent narrative, otherwise who would want to read my story? But at the same time I am not making these things up, the story of my childhood fictions, of my family, they are real. Earlier in her book about the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Malcolm writes: ‘In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully transcribes what is going on in his imagination.’ (Malcolm, 1993, p. 155) In faithfully reporting what goes on in a writer’s imagination it is not always clear where the line between fantasy and reality begins.

Helen Garner came clean about Monkey Grip several years after its successful publication, and after years of defensiveness she acknowledged that she had in fact published her diary. Why is it only now that Garner can come clean about the nature of her first ‘novel’? Is it because now in this non-fiction age, when so many readers want to believe that what they read, actually happened, it is acceptable to write ‘the truth’? Ironically, Garner, after her fifteen-year sojourn into non-fiction has come out with a new ‘novel’, The Spare Room. What makes this one a novel? It concerns a woman, Helen, caring for a friend who is dying of cancer. Before the book came out I wondered had Garner reworked her notes about her mother’s slide into Alzheimer’s? Was she trying to escape the journalist’s non-fiction label? Or in writing a novel, was she perhaps more able to play around with the real, than in writing creative non-fiction? Garner has defended her decision to call the book a novel on the grounds that fiction exists on a continuum, writing which is close to life at one end and at the opposite end, writing that is almost entirely ‘made up’.

I wonder again whether there is some respite for the writer when she does not have to justify her writing as seeking after factual truth as in the writing of non-fiction. Even though in writing this novel Garner has again been accused of writing autobiographically, recasting the real as a fiction for the freedom to write and emotional intensity it allows. Along these lines, Robert Dessaix argues that ‘a novel is primarily a work of fiction with an architectonic quality to it that transcribed diaries just don’t have.’ (Dessaix, 2008, p. 58) By calling her book a novel, Garner raises certain expectations in the reader that she never seeks to fulfil in her ‘report’, as Dessaix describes it. Here I am moving away from arguments about fact and fiction into literary forms, but they are linked.

When I joined a novel writing class in 1996 the teacher set us regular writing exercises to get our imaginative juices flowing. Invariably I twisted her instructions about creating non-existent characters for my story, substituting the fictional for the real. My characters were real. They were the members of my family, and the events I described were events from my actual experience, although I talked about them as fictions. I did not come clean. Our teacher advised while workshopping one another’s material it was important not to talk as though any of the writing were real. She taught us to keep such comments like ‘Did this really happen?’ out of the discussion. She taught us to refer only to the writing, irrespective of how much autobiographical material appeared within it. The writing was all that mattered, that it was convincing and genuine, in its voice and style, its emotional truth, but not whether or not it had actually happened. That was in 1995. How things have changed. The scandals have erupted, not only in America but here, the Norma Khoury scandal, like the James Frey drama with his A Million Little Pieces and the stories of writers like David Sedaris, whose depiction of his childhood experience, clearly departs from the factual, while creating a far deeper and resonant emotional truth.

I cannot write ‘pure’ fiction. Every time I try to make things up some internal pressure pulls me back into the here and now of my existence, the pull of recent events or the past. Everything that floats around in my consciousness connects for me to my life, as I have lived it or wish I could live it. Perhaps my day dreams and fantasies can exist as fictions because more often than not they do not come true. Nevertheless they are not fictional to me in the sense that they are products of my conscious mind. Perhaps if I had the time and space to sit and muse for hours, then I too could begin to fall into the well of words, ideas to form stories, constructed under the weight of my imagination and unconscious, but most of the time, I write from the internal world of my memory and experience. There are many times when I cannot tell whether this constitutes non-fiction or fiction. The boundary between what I remember and what I imagine is blurry, but I do my best to tell my version of events as I remember them, and where memory fails, I let my imagination lead.

Here the essay ends.

If anyone wants the bibliography to this essay, please ask. I haven’t included it here. Bibliographies don’t feel quite right on a blog.

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2 Comments on Fact and Fiction in Writing

  1. Rachel Power
    March 17, 2009 at 6:42 am (9 years ago)

    Fascinating post. And a devastating description of that breakdown of relationship with your brother. How painful that must be.
    What a fraught question–whether our ‘rights’ to our own experience can have limits, when it is inevitably shared with others. Your book idea is compelling, precisely because your versions of events would differ. But the very thing that would make it so interesting is what would also make it so contentious–as you discovered.
    I have a sister who remembers everything entirely differently to me–and with such conviction that I have learned to assume my own recollections are unreliable. She is also one of those types that does not indulge literary ’embellishments’–the kind I’m prone to make for the sake of a good story. Has made for some awkward moments!
    I think writers exist on a spectrum–some, like HG, reliant on their acute observations at one end, to those able to invent stories with little reliance on actual lived experience–just out of their imaginations–at the other. But there has got to be room for both coming under the name of fiction. Fiction is different in INTENT to non-fiction–and that, to me, seems the most important thing.
    ‘Monkey Grip’ might have originally been writings in a diary–but in the hands of a writer (or anyone perhaps?), that does not make it a purely factual document. And in HG’s case, what a diary!

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth
    March 17, 2009 at 10:56 am (9 years ago)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel. I get tired of the old arguments between fact and fiction, given that I suspect neither exist as absolutes, and yet I still think these are discussions we need to have.
    In the end, I suspect the quality of the writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is more important than the actual nature of the content, whether so-called fact or fiction and of course an assessment of quality is inevitably subjective, and linguistically, culturally and generationally biased.
    So many voices fail to be heard for so any reasons, while others of what some might consider lesser quality rise to the top.
    But life’s like that across all domains.
    Enough sermonizing from me.
    One last question: What is it about this blog business that lends itself to pontification and trying to right all the wrongs of the world in two or three sentences.
    I find myself getting sucked into it all the time.
    Lis

    Reply

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