Lately, I’ve been turning to the author’s note in nonfiction books for guidance about writing. I think this has something to do with my MFA program. There were only two kinds of classes, one where we offered feedback to each other on our shitty first drafts and another where we read literary masterpieces. How to get from a shitty first draft to a masterpiece was never covered. The how is in the writing process, of course, but in nonfiction I always get hung up on the extra element, the translation of “truth” into story. Or more specifically, I get hung up on truth.
The following is the opening of an author’s note from Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.
“This is a true story. In order to make its rendition tolerable, certain moments in it have been gently altered–by compressing or inverting the time line, making various people taller or shorter, blithely skipping over unpleasantness, inventing dialogue, as necessary.”
Some of this I consider to be standard for memoir writing and completely acceptable. “Blithely skipping over unpleasantness” is what I consider omitting. It’s the scalpel that cuts the arc of the story, and without it, we’d be reading play-by-plays of people’s lives. The rendition would not be tolerable. This line also tells me that for the most part, Boylan chose to shape her story around the positive aspects of her experience. We all have that right.
“Compressing and inverting the time line.” Fine, I’ll take it. For the sake of tension and Freitag’s pyramid, and for a compelling page-turner of a book. I feel like “gently altered” borders on being an oxymoron, but it’s not. It’s probably a great example of what my teachers meant about the importance of making perfect word choices.
“Making various people taller or shorter” is changing physical attributes of characters. Not a big deal. But the line is kinda offhanded, like she’s sitting in a wicker rocking chair, smoking a Virgina Slims, tossing a hand over her shoulder as she says, “Tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, no matter.”
Here’s where I get stuck: “Inventing dialogue.” It’s like she’s giving up any pretense of truth. Invent means to create, or to concoct and fabricate. To me, “inventing dialogue” implies that no effort was spent trying to remember the dialogue, as if that would be too much for a reader to expect. Boylan uses dialogue for pacing, and in one scene, I think she put words in a doctor’s mouth, for the purpose of lending them authority.
What are we left with after tossing Boylan a bone for not using composite characters? Well, she altered, gently, the plot, characters, and dialouge, which means the setting is super accurate. The fiction writers I know also often aim for truth in setting.
Perhaps the point then is one that I hear often. Fiction and nonfiction aren’t very different. Fiction has to be believable, and nonfiction has to be salable, I mean constructed, and both have to employ similar techniques in order to be stories. And that’s what Boylan’s book is, a story, and I understand that in the meaningful ways, the ones that are emotionally resonant, her story is 100% true.
To easily categorize this book, it is a transsexual memoir. Somewhere in the back of my mind, even though I know the answer, I wonder why it couldn’t exist as a novel, why the curiosity factor wouldn’t hold up if it were simply a story. Would I feel any better if nonfiction books said, “Based on a true story,” like the movies?
Maybe it would have no impact. I don’t feel duped as a reader, but as a writer. I feel duped into trying to be truthful. That’s not entirely true. My philosophy is don’t get caught. I embellish for humor’s sake. I constantly remind myself that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it makes whatever sound I want it to make. I invent my thoughts with the abandon of someone who knows that scientists have not developed a mind-reader to verify them.
But as I learn from continually reading author’s notes, there is a better philosophy than “don’t get caught.” It’s own up to whatever you did, descriptive white lies and made-up conversations, then explain it at the end of the book, where nobody will see it.