Recently, I tried something new. I was the guest at Congregation M’kor Shalom’s book group, where I led a discussion about two of my short stories. Of course, I share my writing every time someone reads it, and I’ve also done readings at coffee houses and galleries. But this was the first time I was going to facilitate a conversation about my own writing, thereby inviting criticism of both my work and, possibly, myself. We were about five minutes into the program when, after a brief introduction, I asked the participants whether they had any questions.
“Is this really true? I mean, is this person you, and are these other people your family members?”
Yikes. I knew it was coming, but it still took me by surprise. I understand the curiosity, and on occasion, I’ve experienced it myself when reading someone else’s writing. How much of this story is true, did this really happen to you, are you that crazy/anxious/obsessed/weird, and so on.
When I write, the line between truth and fiction can be difficult to delineate. I suspect this is true for many writers—frequently, memoir sounds like storytelling, and the author feels like a character to the reader. “Creative nonfiction,” a relatively new but increasingly popular genre, aims to tell a true and personal story in a literary, creative manner. In my own case, my characters are sometimes inspired by a real person or an amalgamation of several real people. A story may launch from an actual event, location or bit of dialogue. However, the characters that emerge, as well as the dialogue and plot that unfurl throughout the drafting process are largely imagined. The “story” is fiction. But the heart of it? The emotional and psychological underpinnings, that part that touches the reader most? That, I believe, is true. For me, and I speak only for myself, the writing is best when it is organic, honest, and at times, painful. I place myself in the situation of the character, call up actual feelings, and attempt to convey the truth on the inside. It’s all about the reveal. If I can put authentic fears and longings on the page, I can illustrate our shared humanity. If I can strike a chord that resonates for you, I’ve opened a door. And if you, the reader, can feel the real emotions, see my vulnerability and be reminded of your own, we have experienced a moment of connection.
So is the story true? I suppose it depends. Is it true for you?