Sunday, August 12, 2018

Memoir in Fiction, Truth in Lies

Note: if you prefer audio-visual media to reading, here's an opportunity -- skip to the bottom and listen to the podcast while looking at a pretty picture! But I do hope you'll read first, then listen.

Even I, despite my intentional avoidance of mainstream news media, know that a lot has been said recently about the nature of truth -- a lot of words but not much substance. "Alternative facts," "fake news," etc. -- phrases whose very existence necessitates an opposing argument, but the entire exchange devolves into Us against Them. "Truth" deserves different definitions depending on the category of reality we're talking about. But the sound-bite world can't tolerate discussion with any depth.

Simplistic thinking is a cultural trend that may never abate, but I intend to continue quietly defending the boundaries of a tiny territory where everything co-exists in equilibrium with its opposite. Where there is no two, only one. Call it Nonduality Nation.

In the literary realm, this might be expressed in the old dichotomy between Memoir and Fiction. Granted, this is useful categorization for the marketing and selling of books -- but that's a mundane level that doesn't interest me much. Also, in my own internal experience as a writer, the distinction is very clear in intention and process: memoir is reportorial, fiction is imaginary. The act of writing in each of those modes simply feels different from the other. So yes, there are categories in which the dichotomy is accurate.

But for some people, Memoir = True, Fiction = False. In Nonduality Nation, this proposition is not valid.

Memory (on which memoir is based) has been proven highly unreliable. See the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, then go even further with the bizarre speculations of The Mandela Effect. So there is certainly no direct correspondence between an author's memory of an event and the objective "truth" of that event, if such a thing even exists. When we write memoir, we just do our best to remember and report. It's a faulty venture at best, but it can be a very rewarding one.

Fiction is a different exercise. My own fiction is subtly and inextricably laced with events and characters "borrowed" from my actual history. I suspect every fiction writer does this to one degree or another. We make conscious decisions to pull a scene, an image, a bit of dialogue, from our database of memories when it feels right for the otherwise entirely imaginary story we're telling. Or maybe those memories inspired the story to begin with. They are the foundation, and they get heavily embellished with imaginary (yet equally important for the story) scenes, images, characters, events -- which, by contrast with memory's "truth," must be "lies."

In that way, truth begins to mix with falsehood to make an undifferentiated soup. To anyone who's thought much about the subject, all this is obvious. But it's only the beginning. My conscious decisions to create that mixture are not as powerful as the inevitably unique expression of my subconscious mind. Every idea, emotion, image, sequence of events -- even word choice, sentence structure, punctuation -- is an expression of me. If I attempt to strictly control those things, as if to bypass my subconscious, the control itself becomes the expression. I can't escape it.

Fiction or non-, every book is a portrait of its author. (I have more to say on this subject... in a future post.) It's entirely possible that a work of fiction might contain more psychological and emotional truth than does a fact-filled memoir by the same author. "The Starry Night" might say more about Vincent Van Gogh than any of his self-portraits. Of course, nothing is certain.

So, in that light, my newly completed novel, Ponckhockie Union (yet to be published) is both true and not true. Also, here in Nonduality Nation, events in imagination are just as concrete as those in conventional actuality. The story takes place in a reality that is almost, but not quite, the same reality you (the reader of these words) and I (their author) are in right now, in this present moment. But the continuum of "real" to "not real" is just as subject to over-simplification, or just as blurrily overlapping, as "true" and "false."

That's one reason why I prefer questions over answers. Here are a few of many questions raised by my novel: Was my protagonist, Ben Rose, actually threatened by a shadowy international assassin, or is it all in his mind, a metaphor? Who would the well-known author Paul Auster be if he had never had publishing success? What if Yasser Arafat of the PLO was actually an impostor controlled by a hidden elite? Did a mercenary killer ever sit at the feet of the guru Nisargadatta Maharaj? In what ways does national history entangle with personal history? And how much of the book is actually autobiographical (in other words, haha, "true")?

I get a secret pleasure from the idea that my readers are asking the autobiography question as they read -- always wondering what is my "true story," or memoir, and what is "made up," or fiction. I hope they come away with an ineffable understanding that it doesn't matter. Those things are one and the same.

With all this in mind, I wrote a very brief, confessional, tell-all memoir. No more secrets and lies! I call it "Vagabond for Beauty." Tom Newton and I recorded it as a podcast for The Strange Recital. My reading is followed by a lovely bit of guitar music by David Temple, then an author interview that explores some of the foregoing ideas, and offers others. The whole thing lasts 23 minutes. I hope you'll listen.

(The photo of Delicate Arch is by me, taken over 30 years ago.)


  1. Ah, truth, my old whipping boy. Don’t get me started on truth. A friend of mine recently sent me her memoir to read and, a few months later, I asked her to be a beta reader for my new novel. Fair’s fair. What I found noteworthy looking at the comments she made was how similar the two books were at their core. Neither got to the truth. They both rooted around and tried to but neither managed it. I found that interesting. Both failed. Failing’s fine, of course. The problem with non-fiction is that it’s more obvious that you’ve failed and by how much. If only to the writer and probably their nearest and dearest. To that end I was disappointed in her memoir. I’d expected insight but it was an unrealistic expectation. We only know what’s inside our own heads and even if we find a way to express that convincingly our lives overlap with so many others whose heads we don’t have access to. I will send you a copy once it’s published (and please do send me a copy of yours) and what you’ll find is a mystery with virtually no answers. Which is what life is to my mind. Or at least no verifiable answers. We make up answers we can live with. And that’s exactly how my book end, with an imaginary conversation providing a possible solution the protagonist can live with. My friend struggled with my solution not realising it was what she’d done too.

    Interestingly my novel takes place (at least in my head) in an alternate reality. You can’t tell but then how would you know? The same goes with dystopias? Did Winston Smith know he was living in a dystopia? As far as he was concerned this was just the world he grew up in. I wonder if the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department churned out their versions of dystopian fiction, worlds where a Big Brother didn’t exist. What a horrible thought!

  2. Thanks Jim, I love your comments! "...what you’ll find is a mystery with virtually no answers. Which is what life is to my mind." Exactly. And your alternate reality comment. These ideas describe my novel as well. I very much look forward to yours, and will send mine when it's in final form. And I'll be looking for another opportunity to work with you on the podcast, if you're game. Cheers!