Fiction has been on my mind lately.
I’ve written terrible fiction most of my life. Nothing I share (at least not often), nothing I’m too serious about. I consider myself a writer, but I always qualify it with words like “essayist” or “nonfiction” or “I don’t write fiction.” Even those additions are hard to say, because I still don’t feel confident in calling myself a *writer* at all. Which is A) probably silly and B) not the point right now. And also C) evidence of my imposter syndrome since I wrote all of that anyway. But I digress.
I don’t know enough about fiction writing to know what the major points of contention are in the genre. This might be part of the reason I’ve been enjoying writing and reading about fiction—none of the baggage that “real” fiction writers have to consider, thus I can write my silly stories and not worry too much if they never find homes in literary magazines or evolve to the point of being “good.”
But I do know that, in a strange twist, issues in nonfiction often have roots in “fiction.” In all the courses and workshops I’ve taken, I don’t think we’ve ever not talked about TRUTH in creative nonfiction. There’s typically at least one conversation featuring the disgraced James Frey. I rarely explain that I believe we are all at fault for true stories that dramatize, that our culture places a premium on the most sensational overcomings, that sometimes the only way we can own our pain is to blow it up to a larger scale in order to explain our suffering and receive empathy/awe/pity/understanding and/or feel justified in feeling/sharing/surviving.
Once, in the darkest days of a depression that I still can’t fully describe, I experienced what I came to find out is called “depersonalization.” I came to understand that it is something I’d experienced before, but never to that level. I sat in my car listening to Mazzy Star (probably my first mistake) and detached from myself. Nothing was real, not my hands on the steering wheel or the music that floated around me. The definition of “surreal” and scary as hell. Again, I can’t explain it well enough—there simply aren’t words that encapsulate how every fiber of my being suddenly became nothing, a fiction.
I spent a significant portion of time in the worst months of depression simply trying to either convince myself that things were real or convince others that nothing was. Perhaps it was then that I became suspicious of the fragile links we have with others. Perhaps it was the depersonalization (which, incidentally, Wikipedia describes as “an anomaly of self-awareness”) that incited my obsession with truth, though I think the overall experience of depression holds more of the blame. What I do know is that I’ve been unable to stop trying to understand reality. Trying to understand reality is not something I’d recommend to anyone, ever, so keep that in mind if you’re ever faced with existential questions.
I read a lot of memoir. Here is the part where I feel compelled to explain that I don’t read “celebrity” memoirs and to sing all the praises of the lovely memoirs I adore—but I won’t. I will tell you that recently I read Lauren Slater’s phenomenal Lying, which is, as she describes it, “A metaphorical memoir.” The book begins, “I exaggerate,” and goes on to leave the reader constantly questioning the truthfulness of her account. Did she really have epilepsy? Did she really do anything she says she did? When you begin to find yourself immersed in her story, she’ll remind you:
As you can probably guess, people have issues with Slater’s memoir. The New York Times praises her gorgeous prose but ultimately admits to being disconcerted and wary. I’ve found bloggers and book reviewers and articles that ooze anger and a sense of betrayal. We want our truth to be able to be pinned down. We demand to KNOW what is TRUTH and what is FICTION. Our lives, we tell ourselves, come down to truth v. untruth. Lying is an unpardonable sin. Writing fictions and passing them off as truths—well, that’ll piss off Oprah.
I love Lauren Slater, and I love her memoir. Then again, I’m struggling, still, to discern my own truths, trying to create my own definition of fiction, so something about the way she describes depersonalization and openly subverts truth is particularly appealing.
Amid all of this, and amid figuring out my culminating activity for my graduate program, I’m immersed in theory and essay and articles about truth—I’m also stewing on fictions in my life. In labeling my losses and dwelling in my wounds, I find that I’m questioning the authenticity of all of my lost relationships and selves. How can we understand “truth” when we know nothing outside of ourselves? Are our relationships “real” only because we understand them to be? And what happens when the other party understands that reality differently? Our memories, too, are slippery things, as anyone who has ever remembered one thing only to have someone else dispute it understands. Then there are our past selves, the ones who are especially hazy, who require squinting and filling in gaps to see.
So I guess my question is this: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? Does it even exist? I’m still grappling with why it matters so much, why a “metaphorical” truth is so unpalatable to so many, why we demand truths to be a certain way when we don’t really even have a right to anyone’s truths.
David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto asks a lot of questions about truth (and plagiarism). He says,
I want that, too. I also want us to stop worrying so much about other peoples’ truths and start worrying more about our own. I want us to stop requiring others’ suffering to fit into a neat box of accuracy, tragedy, and triumph. And I want, for me, to understand those fragile links between us, the way we affect others, and the fictions that hold us together/separate us.