My last blog ended with a question from a person who had just read my new novel, Getting Right. He wanted to know whether the book was fiction or memoir. I believe that it’s a novel, although I understand why the question comes up.
As I previously wrote, there is a factual basis for the story in Getting Right—my brother and sister both died of cancer, and they were prototypes for the characters Len and Connie. Some of the other family members who appear also have prototypes in the “real” world. But I also wrote about how I made a conscious effort to create the characters I did and the narrative world they inhabit. So, in the end, Getting Right has autobiographical elements for sure, but the important thing for me, as a writer, was to explore how memory and imagination interplay in fiction, rather than tell a “true story.”
A few years ago I had the good fortune to team up with Lauren Cowen, a wonderful writer and teacher who happened to be on the writing faculty with me at the University of Chicago. During coffee one day, we came up with the idea of co-teaching a course on the writing of fiction and creative non-fiction, with an emphasis on exploring the similarities and differences between the two genres. Did I ever learn a lot from that experience!
To quote Lauren Cowen: “WHAT DRIVES WRITERS OF BOTH GENRES: CURIOSITY – a desire to make sense of the world, even if they differ in the way they adhere to the representation of that world.” And in that representation writers from each genre share a wide-range of techniques—characters, action, dialogue, description, voice, theme, vision, etc. The writing can look, read, and “sound” so similar it can be difficult at times to know which genre you’re dealing with—hence my friend’s original question about Getting Right—is it fiction or memoir?
Again, Lauren Cowen says: “In nonfiction, what is being described is real; it actually exists or existed – the people, the events, the places. In fiction, as Munro notes, what you draw upon, the ‘starter dough,’ comes from real life, but it is just that, starter dough from which the writer creates a fictional world.” She continues: “In nonfiction, you are saying, in effect, this is true, this happened. And I’m going to show you the place and angle from which I’m describing these true events. In fiction, the pact is to offer an imaginative world to the reader into which she/he is invited to enter and participate in. . . .The READER, WRITER, and TEXT – the three players in fiction, (become) a sort of closed system. Whereas in NONFICTION, (you) have READER, WRITER, TEXT and the EXTERNAL PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS in (the) real world.”
So where does this leave me with Getting Right? I had some “real people” to draw on, as I mentioned above, and I had some external framework (“real” events) to draw on—Alice Munro’s starter dough—the same as Faulkner, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien, Plath, Gordimer, Marquez, or any number of other novelists. They, and I, started with our experiences and observations from “real life,” but—unlike creative non-fiction writers—then filtered those experiences and observations through our imaginations to write the stories we did. Imagination is the key word here. Fiction writing not only allows but encourages an author to fully engage his/her imagination in the act of creation, to take off in whatever direction he/she wants.
What I learned from my association with Lauren Cowen is that whether something is deemed fiction or creative non-fiction has to do with the writer’s intent and with his/her pact with the reader.
In Getting Right, I, like the writers I mentioned, started with “real” experience but used it not as the sole basis for my narrative but only as a starting point. I consciously reimagined everything that went into my novel—the characters, events, you name it—in order to create a word inviting enough for my readers that they would want to enter it and participate in it. I had no intention of doing anything else.
And that’s I why I believe that Getting Right is a novel and not a memoir.