Turning Real Life Into Fiction
How to Do Justice to Grandma
– A View from the Loft, May 1991
Here’s a sad story: You sign up for a writing class because something is burning a hole in your heart – some dear and closely guarded experience that has been haunting you for years. You need to transfer it to the page, to unburden yourself, to translate that lovely and bitter memory into prose. So you write the story of your grandmother’s demise, the tale of the cruel next-door neighbor who seduced your dad, the disillusioning account of your first love. And you turn it in. The following week you get it back from your teacher and fellow students with tactful comments: “Try to think of something more original at the end.” “Could you cut the father?” “This part is corny. It doesn’t seem real.”
“Of course the story was real,” you tell yourself. “It happened to me.”
These morons have insulted the memory of your grandma and suggested that you do away with your father. You lie awake at night composing cutting responses. Then, ten minutes before the next class begins, you approach the first unsuspecting clown. “That story wasn’t unoriginal,” you say. “You see, my grandmother was eighty-seven when….”
Your fellow student interrupts. “So?”
This is the workshop student’s worst nightmare. You have handed in a piece of your soul, and it came back with suggestions written in the margins. What should you do?
First, recognize that your experience and its fictional counterpart are not one and the same, no matter the similarities. There is no exact prose translation for your relationship with your grandmother. In writing, she simply isn’t the same woman. And this distance is good. It protects you. It protects her. Make the best use of it. Spill your guts in the first draft, then rename the old woman; give her red hair and a crooked ear and an extra fifty pounds. Acknowledge to yourself that she’s someone else once she hits the page.
Second, acknowledge that “real life” and the people who inhabit it are full of uneven moments, fallow passages, unseemly habits and cliches. Without editing and rearrangement, they’re seldom fit for literature. If characters and events were enough, we would only have to list the major events of the plot and include a photograph and a bio of each character. Why go to the trouble of writing the story at all? Uneven or not, though, we can’t get away from real life – usually our own – as a starting place and a source. It’s not the odd third-hand tale you overhear in the shoe store that makes you sit in a hard chair and strain your eyes at a computer screen, but your own anguish, your own doubt, affection, curiosity and grief. So how can you do justice to Grandma? How do you translate memory into fiction? What do you change and what do you keep?
Let’s say you’ve been hurting for years because Grandmother’s house was sold out from under her and she was shipped off without ceremony to the nursing home. Rather than tackle the entire history, including a catalogue of the items sold with the clapboard house, find a crucial seed. Go back to the gesture, glance or remark that sticks in your mind and won’t go away. Remember, for example, the afternoon when the old woman came downstairs with the front of her dress buttoned wrong and announced that mice had invaded the bathroom. (She was wrong, of course.) Or the time she insisted on playing rummy but couldn’t remember the difference between the jack and the queen. Zero in on the moments that matter and you’ll have, not a history, but a story.
This next suggestion may sound strange, but when you’re writing about your own experience, remember that you are not necessarily the expert. Readers get tired of a know-it-all storyteller. A story can be much more interesting if the narrator is struggling with the material – figuring it out. If you know before you start exactly who the villains are, think again. Maybe the story isn’t that simple. And it will probably be more successful – less one-sided or pedantic – if you’re less certain where the good and evil lie. Don’t try to know all the answers before you begin.
Now, once you have a draft, ask yourself where it is strongest. Maybe the nursing home isn’t well drawn. Maybe the sale of the house seems a little tedious. The real-life versions of these things haunt you, but on the page they seem flat and dull. On the other hand, buried in the middle of page four is a tiny portrait of the narrator’s father – Grandmother’s only son – doubled over in the vestibule as if he’s about to be sick. You made that detail up, in fact. Your father was out of town during the weekend of the sale.
But there it is, a marvelous, gut-wrenching detail – a gift from Heaven.
Maybe you’re not writing about Grandma after all, but about the narrator’s unwillingness to view her father’s sorrow there in the hall.
All these suggestions add up to one important point. When you rely on personal experience as a starting point for fiction, remember to be faithful to the truth and not the facts. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion talks about the difference between these two. Although she’s discussing journal writing rather than fiction, the point is the same. She insists that the point of writing in a notebook is not to preserve an “accurate factual record.”
In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry: instead I tell what some would call lies. ‘That’s simply not true,’ the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. ‘The party wasn’t for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.’ Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not have remembered the cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me.
It is the emotional or psychological truth that matters. That brief image of the father weeping in the vestibule – you hear the stuttering intake of his breath, and you focus for some unknown reason on his unbuttoned rear trouser pocket – that’s the heart of your story. Make Grandma a grandpa if you need to. Make her six feet tall. Make her drink bourbon with her eggs at breakfast. It doesn’t matter. Your mission is to follow that weeping fifty-one-year old man as he staggers down the hall toward his mother’s room.
Writers who begin from memory often worry that their characters or situations will be recognizable. Their mothers and fathers, in other words, will never speak to them again if their stories see daylight. The extent of this problem depends, in part, on the generosity of your family and friends. It also depends, however, on your willingness to see the story evolve and change. This doesn’t mean that your characters will speak to you in tongues or redirect the plot, or that the muse will whisper suggestions in your ear. It simply means that what you set out to do may not be what you end up with. This discrepancy doesn’t imply a lack of skill, but a willingness to trust the story’s strongest moments – its sense of truth – and to value fiction apart from its real-life origins.
When the story is done, chances are that your fictional parents won’t quite be your parents; at least, the resemblance will be tenuous enough that they can explain to their friends, “It may sound like us, but it isn’t. That was a fictional story.” And they may feel uneasy, but the relatives of writers often are.
When I was an undergraduate, I wrote what I thought was a moving and romantic story about a fleeting encounter on a train in Germany: A young man gave the narrator a single red rose, and they spent the entire night on the train holding hands and talking about the meaning of love.
My teacher hated it. “Cliche,” she wrote, in green magic marker.
I was indignant. “This can’t be a cliche,” I said.
My teacher looked up. She actually smiled. I was probably blushing.
“Oh, it’s fine as raw material,” she said. “But a red rose? Think of something more original for him to give her. Maybe an empty box, or a letter from his sister.”
I still had that rose pressed in a drawer, and it took me a long time to admit that a treasured romantic moment in my life was a cliche. But my teacher was right. What is wonderful in real life can be lousy in fiction. We are more generous in real life. When people tell us sad stories full of unoriginal and banal details, we don’t interrupt to make suggestions. We sympathize. We cry. Not so in fiction. The word “banal” comes back to us, written in the margins.
In the end, regardless of its real-life sources, your story needs an integrity of its own; it has to feel true on the page. Your job as a writer of fiction is to start with memory, if that’s what you do, but to tell the truth of the story, not the facts. At a certain point, you cut the umbilical cord and float free, leaving your autobiography – and your real-life grandma – safe at home.