how much of our fiction is “true”?

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I was once asked during a reading if some of my fiction novel, Makara, actually happened to me.

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 My answer was complex, because some exciting events in the novel were stories that a friend told me about his own life, and many of the locations were places I’ve lived in for a period of days to years.  And the myths I stole from?  The myths were real one day, long, long ago, weren’t they?!

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In all honesty, all of my characters were probably people I knew at some point in my life, and it’s like my brain was a blender, and I threw in a little of my dad, an ex lover, a close friend, mixed it up and got one character.  Then I did another blend for someone else.  I don’t always know I’m writing about specific people at all—until someone I am close to notices it, and then tells me.

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I love writing fiction (and poetry), because we can be artists with our memories.  We can write very close to a real story, but surround it with something different, another country or make it happen to an old god or goddess.  We can do anything with our writing.  I believe fiction is more true than non-fiction, or memoir, because we aren’t limited by our realities, and our emotions themselves can be allowed to speak unrestrained.

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One of my favorite books as a college student was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, where he often blurs fact and fiction.  He wrote an amazing passage about killing someone, then later, he actually admitted that he didn’t kill anyone in Vietnam, but his experience was so vividly horrific, that it FELT like he did kill someone.  He describes that feeling as “story-truth” in these quotes from the book:

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“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

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“It wasn’t a question of deceit.  Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.”

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His words were—and are—incredibly powerful to me.  I realize that through my fiction and my poetry, I am perhaps telling a deeper “memoir” of my life than the actual memoirs I’ve written.  If you ask two or three siblings to tell a story about the same event of their childhood, you will probably get two or three different stories that may not even appear related.  I don’t think any of us truly remembers things that happened in our past accurately.  But I believe the way we remember is more true to our hearts and minds, because that’s the scene that plays over and over in our heads, that’s the memory we are haunted by, that’s the memory we grow and learn from, that’s the memory we believe.

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What O’Brien is talking about when he describes how one of his characters liked to “heat up the truth” is the importance of writing an exaggerated story in order to make the reader FEEL the intensity of a moment without actually being there in the jungle with him.  I’ve done the same thing in my own writing, where I describe something with over-dramatization so that it brings the action right into someone’s mind and makes them feel what the characters are feeling.  Jeanette Winterson does this via magical realism in The Passion, when she describes a woman sneaking into her lover’s apartment to steal back her own heart.  We don’t physically give our hearts away when we fall in love, but we certainly do it emotionally.  Magical realism is all about emotional truth.  In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez uses magical realism like a literary  surgeon:

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“He pleaded so much that he lost his voice.  His bones began to fill with words.”

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“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

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I believe in all stories—even the ones about dragons, unicorns, or shape-shifters, because they may be fantastical or unrealistic, but they come from someone’s memories.  All of our myths and fairy tales come from a blend of our lives, our dreams, and our nightmares.  We are emotional creatures who are rarely limited by our bodies.  Through our stories, we tell each other about what has already happened to us and what we wish would happen or what we don’t wish would happen.  That, to me, is much more valuable than simple facts, or what O’Brien calls “happening-truth.”  I want the “story-truth,” the emotional tales we can only tell through characters, through dogs or gods, through twisting the facts into something we can sing, weep over, or shout out in prayer, because we’ve taken a memory and we’ve transformed it into a legend.

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Four books you should read if you liked this post:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

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