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A Fusion of Fiction with Fact


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Fiction-Therapy-WU-logo-2022.jpg?resize=A troubled teenage boy takes a claw hammer to the dry wall in the family’s living room. His reasoning is that he’s looking for the source of a drip. He knows there are pipes running through this wall, but he also knows they carry gas, not water, and so are unlikely to drip.

His parents are visiting his grandmother. He didn’t go because he argued that grandma was “boring” and “dumb,” and his mother and father, tired from so many such arguments, relented and let him stay home. He soon has a substantial hole in the wall, and his boots are grinding the crumbled plaster into the polished wooden floor.

I had to discuss this scene with the author as part of our ongoing editing and coaching program. I know that much of this person’s story is based on real events in his life, but he’s not writing “yet another misery memoir,” as he puts it. He wants to use techniques from fiction writing to give his narrative more of a structure and to introduce elements that he feels will make his point stronger.

This is autobiographical fiction, more commonly known as autofiction, and made popular in recent years with writers such as Rachel Cusk, Marguerite Duras and Karl Ove Knausgård. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, the author Nina Bouraoui described autofiction by saying that, “It may not be the absolute truth the author is telling, but it is her truth as she lived and experienced it.”

A version of truth

Not everyone is positive about the rise of autofiction. It is seen as the literary equivalent to a selfie Snapchat with filters, more evidence of increasing self-obsession rather than a genuine art form. But even memoir has struggled to be taken seriously as a genre, as the authors—especially if they are women—can be judged more for their experiences than for their writing.

And yet real life stories, or story based on real events, whether books or movies, have mass appeal, as publishers and Hollywood producers are aware. Could somebody really have lived through all these events in their life and survived, we wonder. And not only to survive but to still have the determination and persistence it takes to write several thousand words while reliving the experiences all over again. Who wouldn’t be impressed?

How much fiction enters into these stories varies widely. I worked with one author who wrote about her time as a teenage runaway in the context of a zombie apocalypse because that’s how she experienced it—everywhere she turned there was another predator wanting another piece of her. The conceit worked perfectly as a real-life zombie story.

Working with these authors takes on another dynamic too. When I’m editing fiction, I can be clear that I am talking about the words on the page. Any criticism is not personal but purely about the work. In that way, both the editor and the author can take some distance from anything that might have happened in the real world and objectively discuss the content of the novel, even if they are writing—as we are so often told—what they know.

The need for compassion

With autofiction, it’s a little different. It takes a touch more sensitivity along with a willingness from both the author and editor to be completely truthful throughout the process. In the case of the teenager who took a claw hammer to the living room wall, I was aware that this was likely to be something directly from the author’s life. Or he’d at least done something similar. In the context of the story, it comes straight out of the blue. It is the boy’s first act of teenage rebellion. It comes across in the story as—and I’ve spoken to the author about this so I know he won’t mind me using the word—bizarre. But I have to be careful because I don’t want to judge the actions from his youth. Instead, we have to discuss the actions of the character in the scene as appearing bizarre.

When I said this to the author, he laughed. “Yes,” he said, “it was bizarre at the time too.”

It would be so easy for me to ask more about that time. Did you really do this? Was the damage as bad as you describe? Did your parents react in this way? But I don’t feel that this is any of my business, and so we both have to bring the discussion back to those words on the page.

Shared experiences

Each autofiction author I work with (and I’ve worked with an increasing amount over the last five years or so) is, of course, different. Some are willing to discuss the actual events in their past to help me understand their intention and get advice on how to tackle certain incidents. For me, personally, this can raise questions about how much of my own life I should share. The rational answer is: as little as possible. They’re not working with me to hear about my life.

But sometimes they can describe an situation that I might have some experience with too. This happened recently with an author who had traced her biological parents as an adult after being adopted as a baby, something I too have gone through. It felt odd and even slightly dishonest of me not to share my own experience. I felt the author should know so that she could be aware that my advice might also be clouded by my own experience.

The other side of that is with author’s whose experiences are far removed from my own. One guy I work with is in prison. I don’t know how long he’s been there. I don’t know why he’s there. I’ve never asked. Again, it’s none of my business. I’m only concerned with what he’s written. But it’s a first-person piece about a guy who was wrongly convicted of murder and what happens to him, psychologically and physically, as he goes through the prison system. It’s hard not to wonder how close to the truth this is, especially when he will quite often explain how a particular routine or situation usually works in prison, in real life, which can then lead quite naturally into the (often harrowing) scenario described in the story. At these points, he’ll usually say something like, “I’m talking about the book now.”

This only works because we set out some boundaries at the start and developed them as time went on. We both agreed to make clear distinctions when talking about the story or real life and that, for both our sakes, we’d still repeat the fact that we are talking about the story and not judging any moment of someone’s life.

I find this fascinating work as it makes me aware of this distinction between fiction and reality and between the author and their work. Any criticism (and I always try to heed my own advice) has to be about the writing and never about the writer, even when it comes to the choice of a single word over another. I never say, “You should change this to a more active verb,” but rather something more like, “A more active verb here could add momentum to the narrative.” It’s about the word or the scene or the chapter not the individual.

How do you adapt scenes from your own life into your fiction? For those who write memoirs, how do you incorporate aspects of fiction into the story? Or do you keep it to the facts?

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About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.

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