Kermit Moyer, author of The Chester Chronicles
, which I discussed here
, has interesting things to say about the intersection between fiction and autobiography. After I heard his quote in a Writerscast interview,
which I mentioned here
, I knew he had only scratched the surface of his thoughts on the matter. Here, then, more on the subject from Kermit Moyer (and enough said by me).
I believe that the best way to tell the truth about yourself and your experience is to lie—that is, to write fiction rather than a memoir. Having just published an autobiographical novel called The Chester Chronicles
, I can tell you that, first of all, it’s simply easier to tell uncomfortable truths about yourself when you seem to be talking about someone else. As the poet Richard Hugo has said,
The poem is always in your home town, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. . . . Though you’ve never seen it before, it must be a town you’ve lived in all your life. . . . [Here] it is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem. (The Triggering Town)
But there’s another, even more crucial way that fiction is necessary if we’re going to tell the truth about our lives. If my recounting of my experience is to be as detailed and as richly textured as my experience has been, I have no choice but to use my imagination as much as, or more than, my memory. Because it’s simply impossible to do justice to life’s intricate and filigreed surfaces, its detailed particularities and varied textures, without resorting to imaginative invention.
And who can do without dialogue? But if dialogue occurs in a memoir, it tends to be suspect, to partake of the imagined rather than the remembered, since we can’t usually recall whole past conversations verbatim. So the inclusion of dialogue tends to compromise the memoirist’s primary obligation, which is to be true to the actual facts of the author’s life. The fiction writer’s primary obligation, on the other hand, is to be true to feeling rather than to facts. As E. L. Doctorow says:
Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feel of being rained on.
Finally, I think the special power of fiction has something to do not only with the way it can render a felt sense of life in all its intricacy but also the way it can render life’s moment-by-moment spontaneity and its constant openness to surprise. I may start with the feeling of a remembered situation, but to be true to my experience, I have to let things develop on the page as they will, just as they do in life. Sometimes they take a course I’m familiar with; sometimes—in fact, more often than not—they don’t. Unlike the memoirist, I am free to allow my narrative’s course to be open to the living moment and to unfold as organically as life itself does rather than being predetermined by the facts of my life.
Which is also why I opted to use the present tense for The Chester Chronicles
, even though the point of view is retrospective: the present tense indicates that the recounted experience is happening again right now in the memory and imagination of the narrator, and of the reader. And if the reader is living through it imaginatively along with the narrator, the effect is to make readers feel like the story has happened to them too, that it is actually part of their own experience. And when that happens . . . well, that's it, isn't it? That's what we're aiming for.
grew up an Army brat in the 1950s. He got his BA, his MA, and his PhD in English from Northwestern University and in 1970 joined the faculty of American University in Washington, DC, where he taught literature and creative writing for 37 years. His short fiction has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review,
and The Hudson Review
, and he is the author of Tumbling
, a collection of stories published by the University of Illinois Press. He lives with his wife Amy and their dog Zora on Cape Cod.