23: Turning Life into Fiction

Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley

One last book for 2010. This was another library book sale find.

I have to admit I was disappointed when I started reading it. I plucked it off the to-read shelf because I was looking for some creative inspiration (a la Natalie Goldberg) but it’s not that kind of book. Rather it’s a book of very practical advice for beginning writers. So while it didn’t give me what I was looking for, I found myself agreeing with his advice. For example, he advises against surprise! endings and “as you know, Bob” dialogue (though shockingly he doesn’t know the term aykb!), encourages writers to think about their audience, and avoid “so what?” stories (ones with no point). There’s really nothing to disagree with here. I think he tends to get a little wordy/repetitive at times, but it’s all good advice. There are also writing exercises at the end of each chapter.

I’d recommend Turning Life into Fiction to many people who submit to Toasted Cheese. This edition was published in 1994 (noticeable due to the complete lack of references to the internet!), but there was a new edition published in 2006, which I assume rectifies that issue 🙂

Ok, and now for the good (coincidental/serendipitious/amusing—take your pick of adjectives) part. Robin Hemley did his MFA at Iowa and, at the time TLiF was published, was teaching at Western Washington University. David Shields did his MFA at Iowa and teaches at the University of Washington. I think they’re buds! I offer, as proof, this:

A lot of writers, including myself and most of my friends, occassionally use the names of their friends  in their novels or stories. These cameo appearances are designed for the mutual amusement of the writer and her friend. … David Shields often includes me in his novels as some off-stage editor or other pesky character. (p. 179)

LOL. Ok, so I started reading TLiF, and was progressing slowly through it, when I ran across this reference to David Shields (and keep in mind, folks, this was written in 1994—this the passage that made me check the date). This is from “Finding Your Form,” a chapter about deciding between memoir and novel:

According to writer David Shields, novels in general tend to be more concerned with story, while memoirs tend to focus more on an exploration of identity. That’s not to say that novels are always more concerned with story, while memoirs are always more concerned with an exploration of identity, just that those are the tendencies.

In Shields’ case, he’s noticed his work steadily creeping away from fiction into the realm of nonfiction. His first novel, Heroes (Viking), about a midwestern basketball player and the reporter obsessed with him, is, more or less, a story he imagined whole cloth. His next novel, Dead Languages (Knopf), a widely praised novel about a boy who stutters, contains many elements of autobiography. As a child, Shields had a serious stuttering problem, but the story is almost entirely fiction. A Handbook for Drowning (Knopf), a story collection, is a step closer to autobiography—a few of the pieces feel, to Shields, almost like essays even if most of the details are imagined. His latest work, Remote, which at this writing he has not submitted to a publisher, is a series of fifty-two interconnected prose meditations. It is unquestionably a work of nonfiction. To Shields, the prose pieces coalesce into a kind of oblique autobiography. In this book, the author “reads his own life as though it were an allegory, an allegory about remoteness.” Despite the autobiographical nature of the book, Shields still thinks the persona that emerges on the page is essentially a fictional character. “The identity I’ve evoked,” he explains, “the voice I’ve used, the tone I’ve maintained, the details I’ve chosen, are highly selective, and in many instances, frankly fictionalized. To me, these definitions get pretty murky. Memory is a dream machine. The moment you put words on paper, the fiction-making begins.”

But the question remains, How do you decide on a novel or a memoir? To a large degree, that’s an individual decision, based on who you are and what your material is. Shields tells his students to ask themselves, “What is it you’re trying to get to? Are you essentially trying to tell a story, and if so, are you interested in setting that story in some kind of place? Then you are probably working on a novel. But if the real impulse is a kind of excavation of a self, a kind of meditation on the self, are you really working on a memoir or autobiography of some kind?” When Shields began working on Remote, he thought it was going to be a novel. “After a while, though, I realized I wasn’t interested in character conflict per se. And I wasn’t interested in a physical place, though I made gestures in those directions. What I was interested in was more autobiographical: the revelation of a psyche’s theme via a sequence of tightly interlocking prose riffs, which became the book.” (p. 40-41)

And then I read Reality Hunger and went back to TLiF and finished it. Which was kind of weird! I mean, Hemley’s sort of exploring a similar theme—the thin line between nonfiction and fiction—but of course Hemley’s book is coming at it in a more practical way than Shields, and at the end of TLiF he gets to the stuff about wanting to avoid hurting people’s feelings (or getting yourself in legal hot water), and yes.

First, life may be chaotic and without plot, but that doesn’t mean people don’t need stories. Maybe they don’t need novels, but they need stories (maybe their stories come in the form of movies or songs or video games). But beyond that, people are human; they’re not robots. Blathering on about a quest for the real without considering that a blind allegiance to nonfiction might embarrass or wound or alienate other people is being deliberately obtuse.

The number one reason to choose fiction, in my opinion, is that it allows one to write with complete honesty about things that would otherwise be difficult/impossible to write about. Which I know sounds contradictory, but it’s not if you consider truth and fact to be different things. You change the facts to get to the truth. If you don’t—if you decide it must be nonfiction, that you must stick to the facts—you’re not going to write completely honestly, because you’re going to worry too much about how the people in the story are going to receive it. Your story may be factual, but it won’t be truthful. And that’s why I think fiction is necessary.