A fun writing class last night. I felt cruddy on the drive over — it’s my week to turn in pages, and I don’t like the creepy little story I’ve been working on — but class cheered me back up.
A lot of the discussion was generated by Andrew Furman’s piece on “the creative nonfiction crisis” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers (not available online), the article dovetailing with questions like, when describing a real-life event, where’s the line between artistic license versus the deliberately misleading: Recreated dialogue? Compression of events?
Several of my classmates are writing personal essays or memoir so these are real, worrying issues for them; for me, they’re happily abstract. When I got home I went looking for an old Mary Karr interview where she recounts giving the manuscript of The Liars’ Club to her mother to read. I haven’t found that particular interview yet but I did come across this snippet:
The task [of writing Liars’ Club] was searing: “When I started unpacking my memory and sitting in the middle of it all day, I had the most bizarre experiences–I’d write an hour and a half or two hours and then lie down on the floor of my study and sleep the sleep of the dead.” Taped above her computer was a letter from [Tobias] Wolff offering her this advice: “Take no care for your dignity. Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.” Karr’s mother, on the other hand, put it more bluntly. “Hell, get it off your chest,” she counseled.
I like Wolff’s advice, which seems equally applicable whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.