Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fiction and Nonfiction

My blog-mates have been discussing some fascinating and crucial aspects of writing. Last week, John asked the question, “Should Fiction be Fictional?” Good question.

Like Elizabeth Spann Craig, who wrote a thoughtful comment, I often use a combination of people’s personality traits in developing a character. One satisfying practice I’m sure we all do (What? Don’t tell me I’m the only avenging writer!) is to lampoon, vilify, or (devilish cackling) kill off some evil bastard we know in real life. Naturally, we change the slimy goombah’s name.

Though I start with a specific individual in mind and I even use a situation similar to the one that set me off in the first place, something very interesting begins to happen. Not only does the character take on a personality of her own, the situation evolves. And that's where the fun begins. Sometimes the character gets a thousand times more nasty. Other times, the person has rescued a three-legged dog from a raging brush fire.

Like everyone on this blog, (Vicki can attest, because we did dozens during our exuberant, exciting, and exhausting tour a few months ago) I speak at writing classes and writers’ workshops. Over the years, I have had several people ask about the fine line between fact and fiction. These questions often come from people writing memoirs, and the writer is “stuck” because he/she doesn’t know how to get from one “real” situation to another. The author has been putting together either oral tales or stories from letters written at the time.

First, I tell the person I haven’t written a memoir. Sometimes I take a leap and suggest the author try unleashing himself from the confines of non-fiction. How much of memory is fiction, after all? Some great novels have been written on that theme alone. Change the character’s name, write the story, and then take a step back and see how it reads. If the author wants to, he/she can go back and change the name back.

It seems to me that non-fiction writers have to deal with more accusations than fiction writers, though Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, was based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote and controversy still swirls around this riveting story. Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough do thorough and painstaking research, yet each has faced accusations. Even if a work is nonfiction, readers demand a lively narrative and where does one draw the line? Whose account do you believe?

Don’t even get me started on today’s politicians. Who’s going to write U.S. history, circa 2000-2008? Hope I’m around to read several versions, because they aren’t going to tell the same story.

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