I was in a writer’s group some years ago, an extraordinary group because except for me it was composed entirely of women–and they were elderly, seventy, eighty, ninety years old. At first I thought, “What am I doing with this bunch of old ladies?” But I quickly changed my tune.
They were tremendously talented and clever, sharp, and knowledgeable, and taken all together had hundreds of years of professional or amateur experience. It was a great, exciting group, the most pleasant and worthwhile I’ve known. The atmosphere every time was warm, radiant, cordial, and safe–a most productive creative environment. I often think of them fondly. At a session I read aloud a short story I’d written. When I was reading I heard one woman–an award-winning journalist–say to her friend with a tone of discovery, “This really happened. You can tell.”
Well it had really happened. I hadn’t changed a single thing from the actual events and the actual setting and mood and people, except the names. Even then I used their correct initials–“Wayne Collins” became “William Carruthers,” etc. In writing it I had to make everything accurate. If I wrote, “She had grey eyes,” I wouldn’t let myself get away with it. I just had to change it back to the real color, blue. Then the group turned to the question everyone seemed interested in that my reading had raised: “Can obviously autobiographical material–meaning it had really happened, the detail told you that–qualify as fiction?”
The eight people in the group were evenly divided. Four said, “Fiction is fiction and non-fiction is non-fiction. There’s a big difference.” I once asked my wife, an excellent writing teacher, “What is a short story these days,” and she replied “Currently, a short story is anything you want it to be.” That liberal view was basically the attitude of the other four members of the group, including me, so in our minds my strictly and admittedly autobiographical story more than held its own as fiction.
It goes without saying that when they are creating, all writers–all people in the arts–depend heavily on their own past experiences. But while most writers create characters and plots using their imagination as the dominant shaper of the work, some writers–such as those cited in this post–adhere slavishly to their own experiences and knowledge.
Truth is what the writer, painter, actor sincerely believes in his/her own heart. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist and for the audience. The artist is often not striving for literal truth, but is inventing too, saying to the reader, “I’m trying to convince you that if this were happening, this is how it would be. If characters were people, this is how they would feel, talk, and behave.” But some writers invent far less than remember.
In college and in graduate school I was trained in “The New Criticism” that says all that matters when studying a literary work is the work itself: the author’s personality should not enter into it. I had a knack for sticking to the text and ferreting out patterns of images and symbols.
But I am a writer of fiction and poetry and I know from my own long experience and that of many other writers that the author’s personality and experiences are everywhere present in the creative process and permeate the content of everything the writer commits to the page, every feature, major or minor. Critics may not know that or may act as though they don’t, but every writer does. A writer can look at a passage in her work and say, “That character sounds so bitter because I had a bad tooth ache that day and so I was in the perfect mood to write that dialogue.”
There is a long precedence for obviously autobiographical content being put into fictional form and being accepted as fiction even though it really happened. Short story master/playwright, Russian Anton Chekhov, said “Art has this one great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…There is absolutely no lying in art,” and in a letter to his brother, “Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself.”
That’s much easier to do when you are writing about yourself because you know yourself better than you know any character you can imagine and you know better than anyone else what happened to you if you have a clear and accurate memory. Autobiographical fiction writers obviously need exceptional memories–and most have one. Their most important creative routine is to stimulate their memory. I may look at photo albums as a way of doing this. I’ve said about myself–hopefully not bragging–that I can remember every blade of grass on the street I lived on when I was eight.
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised to “write from recollection; [but} trust more to your imagination than to your memory.” Most writers are liars–they invent. But some writers write their best fiction, poetry, drama, and screenplays when they are writing the literal truth–or almost the literal truth–and not lying.
American Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, for example, said, “I have never written anything which did not come directly or indirectly from some event or impression of my own,” and “I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one; Is it the truth as I know it, or better still, feel it,” and “I am a dramatist. What I see everywhere in life is drama. I just set down what I feel in terms of life and let the facts speak whatever language they may to an audience,” and “Writing plays was the easiest thing in the world for me. I wasn’t making anything up.”
Some famous autobiographical authors who could be obsessive about not lying or writing about things they hadn’t experienced themselves include:
Katherine Anne Porter
Eugene O’ Neill
Ernest Hemingway, another Nobel Prize winner, could invent with the best of imaginative writers, but was obsessed with telling the truth, the importance of telling the truth, in his words, “the straight statement without moralizing or elaborating or decoration”–what “is not messed with.” He was asked what the job of the artist is, and he said it is to put down what you see and what you feel in the best and simplest way you can. What he had personally done and knew most about was what he was interested in telling about. “His standard of truth-telling remained…so high and so rigorous that he was ordinarily unwilling to admit secondary evidence…picked up from other sources than his own experience” (Carlos Baker.) Whenever I read the wonderful Hemingway short story “Indian Camp” I know that boy sitting in the rowboat was once the real Hemingway and the man with him was his real father just as in the boy in the story I read to the group was my best recollection of how I was as a boy.
Thomas Wolfe had an enormously retentive memory, as autobiographical writers generally do, and engaged in exhausting, sustained, many-hours-long periods of writing. (Research shows that the most productive writers and painters usually work in long, protracted bouts of creation and not in brief, choppy spurts. For maximum effectiveness you would preferably have or develop the ability to concentrate your attention for long periods, and if possible, find long uninterrupted, unimpeded periods of time for work.) The artist’s highest goal is to make conflict-free, habitual use of the urge to create that dominates him or her, with no one and nothing interfering. It is not just interference that so aggravates the creator, but even the threat of interference.
Wolfe’s aspiration was to put into his writing precise descriptions of every experience and every impression and every sight and sound he had ever known. He wanted to put all the experiences in his life into written language, and had every confidence that was possible. His life had to be “looted clean.” “Everything had to be used; nothing could be implied” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature).
Like many creatives whether in the arts or the sciences, Wolfe was governed almost wholly by the compulsion to work, to be as productive as he could possibly be. Words came out of him straight from his memory as water comes from a spigot–hundreds of thousands of words, thousands every night, manuscripts of a million words, his never having any concept of the requirements of a publishable book. Whenever he was deterred from working, this tall, handsome, tremendously gifted man from North Carolina would fall into a black mood. Then he would brood, drink, and pace the streets all night until he was able to work again, starting in the evening and working past the break of dawn.
Malcolm Lowry was the English author of the wonderful virtuoso-performance novel Under the Volcano. It’s generally considered one of the great works of the twentieth century. It is possibly the most accurate description of a man’s alcoholism ever written. (He wrote, “One dreaded the arrival of anyone unless they were bringing alcohol.”). Lowry almost never tried to invent characters or events because he didn’t know enough about any other person to be able to do that. His subject was himself and he could not focus on anybody outside himself. When he tried to, the writing went flat. He didn’t know anything about world events or anything else either. Everything revolved around his thoughts.
James Joyce had such a need for authenticity and accuracy that he believed he didn’t possess an imagination at all: he couldn’t make things up. When writing Ulysses he sent a letter home to Dublin asking a friend to go see if it was possible for a man in average physical condition to jump from this place to another at a specific address, or was it impossible. He had to know or he couldn’t finish the book. He was depressed when after the book was published a retired sea captain wrote him telling there was a mistake in the book in that with wind blowing the way he described, the boat wouldn’t have behaved in the way he had it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with Hemingway, is arguably the most dramatic example in American literary history of an author whose private life is reflected consciously or otherwise in virtually everything he wrote. Fitzgerald’s language, his prose, his voice, tell us what he was going through at any given moment in his career, from his early extraordinary successes through his crack-up. Saul Bellow’s fiction is strongly biographical fiction. Its focus on the workings of a brilliant mind help explain why his writings are in essence long monologues. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is also strongly autobiographical.
T.S. Eliot said, “We all have to choose whatever subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.” Literary critic Gilbert Murray wrote, “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings.” It is not a random choice, but a discriminating, highly selective instinct, a particular order of things that has an outstanding appeal to that particular writer. Painter Julian Levi said, “It seems to me that almost every artist finds some subdivision of nature or experience more congenial to his temperament than any other.” The subject matter, the subdivision of experience that all these writers mentioned here found, and that autobiographical writers today find, is not what they can imagine, but themselves and the recollection of the lives they’ve lived.
It’s generally thought among critics that Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past were the two greatest novels of the twentieth century. The subject of Proust’s book was Proust as much as the subject of Lowry’s works was Lowry. Wolfe’s subject was Wolfe, Fitzgerald’s was Fitzgerald, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, Plath’s was Plath, Hemingway’s was Hemingway, etc.
The answer to the question, “Can a true story be communicated as fiction?” is “Of course.”
© 2017 David J. Rogers
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15 responses to “Fiction and Truth”
I really enjoyed this post. When you talked of the initial surprise at being in a group of old ladies, it reminded me of something I learned when i was young and very green. Around 1975 I was involved with a big art centre on the east coast – and one day while taking with a visiting much older and successful painter from Cyprus – I made some flippant comment about there being quite a lot of old ladies involved with the Centre. He looked at me and said ‘Old ladies have been some my biggest and best supporters – and quite often know much more about painting that I will ever know…’ I realised in that moment, what a foolish thing for me to say….and since then some of my most important supporters and allies are indeed old ladies…..of course I am getting to be one myself now 🙂
As a painter, my subject matter is of great importance, and it is only when I paint from my heart that my work can sing. When I try to fudge something, it never works. Sometimes I will visit a new place or meet someone new,
and will feel a sense of recognition and deep connection – that’s when I really paint. Likewise when I am writing – it only works when I write about what I know and understand.
As for the ‘threat of interference’ being an issue…oh how I understand. When I work, phones are unplugged – door not answered unless someone is expected….and so on. One minor interruption can set me back hours.
Thank you David….I do enjoy reading your posts. Janet 🙂
Janet, thank you for your interesting comment. Flippant remarks usually come back to haunt us if we have a conscious, don’t they? We try never to utter them, but there is that once in a while one–ooops–regret. I bet you felt terrible.
I too have experienced that “sense of recognition and deep connection” you experience at times. What a satisfying emotion. In your recent post you took us step by step through the creation of a watercolor, and I thought that was great being inside your creative process. I enjoy too learning about what makes you in your words “sing.” Here you are a painter and writer and you use the word “sing,” another art. I loved that, music being so important to me. I work to music all day. I’ve asked Diana if she could be any kind of artist what would she be and she quickly said “composer.” She asks me and I too say “composer.” Would you pick “artist” or something else?
I’m pretty good about quickly recovering from interruptions when I’m working now, and I can tell you’re a master at that. There are just so many in our lives, aren’t there? There goes one now–my laundry is done.
My best, as always
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Good morning David, I often refer to ‘composers of music’ when teaching. In painting we use colour and form to direct the viewer’s eye around the canvas….just as the composer creates music always bearing in mind how the audience will hear the work. I believe that all the arts I interconnected….and like you I listen to music when I am painting. 🙂 Enjoy a lovely and creative weekend – so good to know that you and Diana are enjoying her retirement. janet 🙂
I think I can hear the music in your work, Janet. Have a wonderful weekend.
Thank you, David. I recall my English studies at Columbia University in the early 1960’s. I could not abide by “The New Criticism” as it was taught at that time. It just didn’t seem to make sense to me. This article makes me feel better about the way I felt at that time.
Thank you for the comment. I enjoyed the New Criticism–puttering around in literary works to find symbolism, etc, but I was always interested in the biographies and personalities of the writers too. The New Criticism was like playing a clever game.
Looking forward to seeing you next week.
Hallo David. This is my first comment on any of your posts. I am from Kenya and recently discovered your blog (about two weeks ago, I believe). There is nothing I have read here that I do not agree with. I binge-read so many of your previous posts, going all the way back to your early posts. How I wish I had discovered you five years ago when I started what I used to call my “writing apprenticeship” (before that I was an amateur)! It would have been such a great help. Yet somehow, I was able to discover most of the things you have written about either through sheer luck or from obsessively reading the interviews and articles of writers I admired, looking for tips. When I first read your blog (two weeks ago), I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Have you ever had in your life the feeling as you read another writer that you are reading your own thoughts (with more refinement and experience that is!) That’s how I felt. I too have used Hemingway as my model (I also learned a ton from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway’s Teacher), and like you I am a deep, deep Japanophile. I love the Japanese way of doing things, how they ritualize everything, how they turn everything into a “way”, that search for perfection and enlightenment, and I love the Samurai and Zen. Sorry for this long, long comment. But I can’t help gushing. I shared your blog with several of my writer friends and I hope they will reap as much benefit as I am reaping. Thank you for writing so many blog posts – it’s a treasure trove! Here’s how I discovered your blog. I was watching Charlie Brown specials on YouTube when it struck me that there was a special air of sincerity in the cartoon. That inspired me to write down something sincere (as Hemingway would say, “one true sentence”). And that’s when I figured out that I had lost my sincerity. And I began to reteach myself how to be sincere. And then I wrote a sincere story. And then I went online to search for anything I could find on sincerity in writing and art. I went through like ten articles before I came to one of yours. After that one I read another, and then another, and then I knew had found something truly special.
So you are the Kenyan who has been visiting my blog recently–hello, Eric. Glad to meet you. My WordPress report lets me know how many people have viewed my blog each day and the countries they are from.
Your compliments give me energy as I work today. I got up at 2:00 A.M. this morning with a hunger for Hemingway and started reading The Sun Also Rises for probably the fiftieth time. Hemingway so loosens you up, doesn’t he, his style and mood telling you to be free and have an unpretentious, unliterary tone. Joan Didion, a well-known American writer said about him, “I mean, every sentence is perfect.”
I’m happy to hear that there is another compulsive reader on this globe in addition to me. Wherever I am to be found will also be found the book I’m reading. Your image of rubbing your eyes in disbelief pleases me of course. I did have the feeling of having been “discovered” by a reader there, and I suppose your friends are reading me too.
Yes, I have had the feeling you describe about reading your own thoughts elsewhere. For a long time I traveled quite a bit. Wherever I went, naturally I would visit book stores. When I entered a store in Madison, Wisconsin I felt a rush of happiness because it seemed to me I was walking into my own mind. All my favorite subjects and authors were in that store with me.
You say you lost your writing sincerity for awhile. That’s a terrible loss, and I’m glad you’ve recovered it–nothing as regrettable as an artist who’s lost sincerity.
“Ways”–oh yes. Many years ago I read the samurai maxim, “The Way (of the samurai) is your daily life.” Well I took that literally and wrote Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life. It has been read and its knowledge applied by homemakers, government officials, sales people, teachers, actors, movie directors, opera singers, writers, etc., showing me that learnings can be acquired from a foreign and quite different culture and from a period long past.
I read your flash fiction story “Royalty” and found it inspiring.
It is such a pleasure to meet someone who shares so much with oneself, friend. I wish you the best in your writing and look forward to being in contact with you again.
I hardly dared dream of such a complete response. In respect of your time I will keep it short this time. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein are just perfect. When she’s not writing her hermetic poetry stuff that’s impossible to understand – Melanctha was a work of sheer perfection. Reading Hemingway, especially his early work is like drinking a glass of cold water when you are thirsty – you feel it in every inch of your body, up to the hair roots. I have always written in a simple, unpretentious way, and it was wonderful to read Hemingway and realize one could write in this way and still have a strong[er] emotional effect on the reader. Oh, thank you for that comment about that flash story. I also have a blog. Two or three weeks old. https://rugara254.wordpress.com/ And thanks a big one for the thorough response (over the next few days I will read it again and again). And thank you for the well wishes in my writing. I just love this internet age – fancy what it would have been like if one could have had the ability to leave a comment on Hemingway’s blog and get a real response!
Eric, you might be interested in the book The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin. It’s a wonderful book of useful essays on creativity. One essay is “A Conversation with Gertrude Stein” that you may be interested in.
I hope your new blog is a great success and that you enjoy writing it. I started writing my blog at the urging of my son–a school principal and writer of young adult fiction–and my wife, a writing teacher. It is a lot of work if you do the kind of blog-essays that I do. But I enjoy it overall and enjoy the friendships it has brought me with people all over the world. And I have so many more topics I’d like to write about.
It’s good hearing from you. I hope all your writing goes well. I have to go out now, but I will take a look at your blog later, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.
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I have just read the essay. I enjoyed it enormously, thank you.
I thought you’d like it.
What strikes me is the quality of your writing and the trouble you have taken to write such a long and detailed post which is very instructive and makes me feel I know you a little bit.I agree with you that it is possible to meet some fine people on the Internet who have similar interests.I had a friend who worried about revealing one’s self but if I put my poetry in a book it would reveal a lot about me.Except not many people buy poetry in book form and it is more accessible here.
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Like you, I do have a skill in writing. I have studied writing for many, many years. I do appreciate your compliments, just as I compliment you on your writing.
You’re right: I’m sure the way one writes reveals a great deal about them. I’ve written so many things that tell stories about my life and express my opinions that I don’t think twice about that. My goal is to give and give more in my writing and ask nothing in return–and be honest.
Sure, your poetry says a lot about you. That’s the nature of your poetry.
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That’s right.It’s not possible to write without revealing one’s self. And that is how it reaches other people’s hearts and minds