The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction
My guest this week is JENNIFER SKUTELSKY. JENNIFER is an author, editor and writing coach. She’s written two books of nonfiction, BREATHING THROUGH BUTTONHOLES, the ghostwritten autobiography of a Jewish woman who survived Nazi-occupied Belgium, and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, a memoir exploring the aftermath of xenophobic violence that broke out in South Africa in 2008. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer lives with her daughter in San Francisco. She has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos.
The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction: The Novel vs The Memoir
At times there’s a struggle between these two mammoths. While there are similarities between the two, they are different, and the writer must carefully consider which will best serve the story s/he has to tell. This isn’t as clear-cut a choice as it might seem.
What the novel and the memoir share are distinct qualities of craft and storytelling, and oddly enough, the author’s concept of truth, however slanted, distorted, real or imaginary. World building lies at the heart of the novel and the memoir, together with all its associated facets: conflict, relationships, setting, and challenges that characters take on, succumb to or overcome.
As an editor and writer of both, I’ve encountered the limitations and demands of fiction and nonfiction, exploring the boundaries of perception and subjective nature of truth. Assuming to come to a conclusion is tricky because it seems so final and rigid, but my own deduction has yielded the belief that truth is more easily captured in fiction.
It took me a while to figure that out. Even creative nonfiction, which at first seemed like an oxymoron to me, is rooted in authentic experience, and who better to reveal, expose, share, and relate than someone who has lived the story they’re telling? The reader who plucks a memoir off the shelf assumes the story is true, the characters are real, and events a faithful reproduction of the past. Readers accept that they’re exploring a writer’s personal history and sensibilities.
In fiction, writers can eliminate ‘truth,’ toss it aside for fantastical landscapes, imaginary characters and outlandish events, taking the reader on an unlikely journey as far from real as it’s possible to get. The writer can in a sense play God, reinvent, innovate, offer something fresh and unpredictable to a reader who wants to get lost in a narrative with no or little bearing on immediate experience. But the novel can also take the reader deep into realities that reverberate with truth’s mercurial qualities.
Truth can be stranger than fiction; real life incidents can defy our notions of the world and humanity; and actual conflict can test the margins of credibility. Conversely, the skillful fiction writer can craft a story that draws the reader into a fabricated world no less authentic because it’s imagined.
In deciding whether to write a novel or memoir, one of the most important elements to consider, one that will probably tip the scales, is intention or motivation.
This is easier for the fiction writer to grapple with. You have a story to tell. That’s it. Lots going on in your head that belongs in a book.
It’s not nearly so simple for the writer who takes on a memoir. True, there’s a story to tell, but why tell it? Who cares?
Well, everyone of course, because we’re motivated by:
- Altruism. We want to expose unfairness, injustice, pain or abuse, and feel that others in a similar position will benefit from our revelations. Unwrap the sore, and begin the healing process. Here the memoir comes into its own. People relate to people, and seek to identify with each other through common suffering, ailments, emotional distress and various other life challenges. You want to punish someone, isolate her. You want to inspire or comfort her, convey that she’s not alone. The memoir can bridge tremendous gaps in knowledge, experience, emotional engagement and compassion.
- Spite. You’re a good writer, and a memoir provides the perfect platform to get even with errant siblings, parents, friends, bosses, exes, spouses. Um…no. Avoid a lawsuit and look to the novel for this kind of satisfaction. Fiction offers virtually limitless potential to exact wicked, literary revenge on anyone you choose, although this might be one instance where a pseudonym will come in handy.
- Catharsis. While hammering away at a laptop and giving voice to all our pent-up emotions can be cathartic, some secrets belong in a therapist’s office or a support group–safer forums than the mass, critical, somewhat anonymous publishing industry. Catharsis can be found off the published page, and we’re often too close to our personal injuries to withstand an assault or barrage of rejection. It’s a difficult line to draw, because the memoir’s essence lies in honesty and vulnerability. Here too, characterization in a novel offers a fertile base for rich emotional detail and observation. It also allows for redemption that may be elusive in real life. Maybe there’s something cathartic in that.
- Celebrity. You’re famous and have already made millions. Now you want to sell lots of books. People find you entertaining/smart/funny/interesting, and they’ll be drawn to your personal story because you’re gorgeous and talented and have your own reality show. If that’s it, then maybe wait a while before tackling the novel. The memoir is your baby.
- Connection. You have something to share, a fresh angle and insight to offer and feel a generous urge to reach out and connect with a readership. You may not change the world, but you’re valuable and want to leave a tangible legacy behind. Perhaps for your family and friends, or a broader circle who will find value in your story. Write a memoir. It could lead you to a novel.
Navigating the challenges of writing long form fiction or nonfiction can be exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. Our ancestors were storytellers, whether they chose to smear pigment on cave walls, carve symbols in wood, tell tales around a communal fire, or write. We have a natural inclination to create, and language is one of the best tools at our disposal to do so. If you have a story to tell, go ahead, choose your medium and tell it.
Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time to share your passion for storytelling with us.
A final word from me: I’ve read TIN CAN SCRAPNEL and recommend it without hesitation. It’s the true story of a woman who became involved when she didn’t have to. Reading it, I learned about a tragic situation that I didn’t even know existed and was reminded how many-faceted are the problems in our world.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to Jennifer’s website: http://www.jskutelsky.com
TIN CAN SHRAPNEL on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1qekvFr