As the NonfictioNow Conference heads to Melbourne in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about creative nonfiction. It’s my favourite genre at the moment. I love its playfulness, its lyrical language, the ability to create exciting narratives with historical resonance, the way writers can shape people’s lives (and their own).
I think I’m most interested in where boundaries blur, where nonfiction blends into fiction and other genres, at what point the self dissolves in memoir. Recent discussions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival around nonfiction concentrated (as always) on the truth. Lee Gutkind, the so-called ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, kept repeating his mantra: true stories, well told. But I found this emphasis frustrating and limiting. Why do we always have to focus on the ‘truth’, that slippery and elusive notion? Why do readers get so angry when the author is revealed to have made things up? It’s the same for documentary film. Many still carry the notion that docos are somehow real, rather than carefully constructed arguments.
I’ve never understood this strong attachment to ‘what really happened’. It seems that when you write nonfiction you’ve signed a contract with the reader. As with an intimate relationship, if you lie, it’s a betrayal. Readers don’t seem to forgive. But I’m more interested in the slippages, what lies between what happened and what the writer reveals. Take a look at your daily life and the story you tell about it to others. I’d guess you lie to yourself (and others) many times a day; or if not quite a lie, then not quite the truth. If you write about your life, this takes on an extra dimension; you’re creating for an audience, shaping a narrative so that others will want to share the journey.
Kate Holden is one of the most interesting writers working in nonfiction. Her first memoir In My Skin was a page-turner, in the best sense (one of my favourite books of past years). Her tale of heroin addiction, and the lure of prostitution, was unusual in that it worked almost as literary fiction, beautifully crafted and confident in technique and attention to detail and character.
Everything in The Romantic is true, but it has been “filtered and worked on”. Readers tend to think a memoir is a chronicle or record of a life, “but it’s a much more subtle form. You’re compressing, eliding, using your craft to present a good story.”
Her disclaimer at the beginning of the book (that she read out at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival) is a careful reminder to readers that all may not be as it seems:
This is a work of imagination as well as truth. All names have been changed and characterisation compressed. It is a sincere memory in shaped retrospect. The author is real.
Although again a memoir, Holden plays with the conventions of a rom-com-style odyssey through Italy — while revealing the passivity that plagues her in many situations, especially in her relationships with men. This is no Eat, Pray, Love. While a recovering addict, she is also in a sense testing out her new identity as a single woman abroad, re-learning how to be independent, and working out how to relate to men (with sex and without) now she’s no longer a paid sex worker. While there’s the occasional joyous moment, many of her experiences are brutal and painful, full of self-doubt and despair.
Jeanette Winterson is also prepared to be brutal (about herself and others) in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir about growing up in an abusive household, with a deranged mother who’s waiting for the end of the world. Winterson’s style is savage, rushed, compelling — as if she’s running down a mountain trying to escape an avalanche (of emotion). But there are some gaps (big ones), years that she jumps over, a suicide attempt mentioned in passing.
As with Kate Holden’s writing, her strength is in her ability to feel, convey and translate pain. But also maintain a sense of wonder. As her mother bans and burns her books, she decides she can hold them close (within her body) by memorising texts; her connection to literature, to the local library, keeps her alive.
I’ve just started on my own nonfiction path. I don’t find it different from writing fiction, really. I try to inhabit my characters (real or not), play with the landscape I’m creating, and transform research into something dynamic. I don’t like being tied down by boundaries and expectations. But I do let the players involved read the end product, and if they’re happy, I run with it.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? READ ANY GREAT NONFICTION LATELY?
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