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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