First, some backstory: For most of the eighties and nineties, I wrote at a furious pace. In '88 I turned pro, in the sense that I first got paid for it. (In the words of Sam Peckinpah, I was a good whore.) In the late nineties, roughly around the time I got married, writing bacame less of a passion for me. Eventually, I stopped altogether.
Until now. Though I've been writing at this site for less than a week, the discipline involved in the act of writing on a semi-daily basis is invigorating, and reminds me why I loved doing this in the first place. Already I've started making notes and jotting down ideas for a novel about my experiences in 2002, when, in a four month period, my marriage ended, my cat died and my brother was killed in a freak accident.
Notice I said novel.
One of the strangest trends in the world of publishing is the sudden abundance of memoirs. It seems like half of the non-fiction titles on the best-seller list involve some poor sap with crazy parents, addiction to drugs/alchol/sex, a stay in jail/mental institution, death of person significant to author (frequently, though not always, a crazy parent) and finally, some sort of redemption. Who are these people, and why should anybody care?
I was baffled by the recent hooha over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. He embellished, he enhanced, he made stuff up? Of course he did! I don't believe for one second that ANY of this new breed of memoirists do anything else.
I mean, hey, I've attempted suicide, I've done time in mental wards. You know what? It's not that interesting. I mean, the place, the people, the day to day rituals--pretty much dullsville. Oh, but the thought processes involved, the exquisite pain of existence that makes you want to commit suicide in the first place, Golly Moses, that's dramatic. The only problem is, it's all inside your head. It's all subjective. It's all fiction.
After all, at the most dramatic times of your life, are you taking notes?
One of the old-school maxims about writing was that every author of fiction started with the semi-autobiographical novel that he needed to get out of his system, and then moved on to other stuff. But the point is, they were writing novels. Fiction. Of course, any decent author is after some sort of truth--emotional truth--in their work. But fiction, however closely based on one's actual experiences, is free to wander where it may, to discover minor characters who may hijack the narrative, to realize motivations of antagonists, to discover the story you thought you wanted to tell isn't really the one worth telling.
Writing fiction is creating a world. Writing a memoir is making yourself the center of the world. It's the difference between art and masturbation.