I write both fiction and nonfiction, and with the latter I have an admitted preference for narrative. No matter the genre, then, I see myself as a storyteller. I like to tell stories, and sometimes I like to tell them about invented characters, and sometimes I like to tell them about real people.
When I have material that I believe is important to announce and claim as my own—and that’s usually because there’s something I need to explore about myself and my experience, something I need to investigate that only the particulars of my own world will make possible—I turn to nonfiction.
Most of the stories in my first book, The Least You Need to Know, were about fathers and sons in difficult relationships, and those stories were satisfying to me for what I was able to do with structure, character, and dramatic irony. The intersection of imagination and experience allowed me to do with my real-life material what I wouldn’t have been able to do in nonfiction. I was able to stylize the material in a way that, because I was free from the strictures of what really happened, deepened character, complicated situation, and more aesthetically shaped the dramatic potential that first brought me to the page. Working from autobiography to fiction also allowed me to trick myself into writing about personal experience. Because I was free to hide behind the scrim of invented characters and situations, no matter how closely aligned with myself and my history, I was also more willing to come to dramatic truths that were important to the stories and also important to me.
But I’m not sure that I was aware of the latter while I was writing these stories. Fiction brings me to truths that are personally relevant, but it doesn’t bring me to the same sort of truths that my work in nonfiction does. In that genre—and my work there began with my second book, my memoir, From Our House—I’m hoping for a different truth from the narratives. In that book, which directly took on the autobiographical material that had informed so much of my fiction, I was still interested in structure, character, and dramatic irony, but because I was dealing with factual material I couldn’t freely arrange episodes, create dimensions of characters that didn’t exist in the real people about whom I was writing, or engineer ironies that never occurred. I could still shape, but I couldn’t invent. Imagination was less at play, but I could still use the tools of fiction to claim my own experience, to face it directly, and, in shaping it, to question, to explore, and finally to discover truths that were personally significant.
Perhaps there’s an honesty and integrity in this kind of work that holds the writer close to the bone. Perhaps aesthetic restraints open the writer more to the act of discovery, though I believe that when the fiction writer is working to the best of his or her ability, the same thing happens. To dissolve some of the boundaries between the two genres, I recently came up with a writing activity that encourages lying in nonfiction:
- Open a piece of cnf by telling a lie about yourself. Don’t stop to think. Just go with the first thing that comes to you. Be as outrageous as you’d like.
2. Admit the lie, using this prompt: “That’s not true at all. The truth is. . .”
3. Embrace the lie, using this prompt: “Oh, but how I wish it were true, for if it were. . .”
4. Let the lie bring material to the surface that you might be hesitant to explore otherwise by using this prompt: “Why would I spin a lie like that? When I think of that lie, I also think of. . .”
The objective is to let fiction provide a doorway into truths about your life that you might not otherwise notice. A blend of fiction and nonfiction can sometimes open our material to us in profound ways.