Fiona Maazel was the Adelphi MFA visiting writer for Fall 2014, is the author of the novels Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. She is winner of the Bard Prize for Fiction and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35″ honoree. She teaches at Brooklyn College, New York University, Columbia, and Princeton, and was appointed the Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany, for the spring of 2012. What follows is an excerpt of her discussion on the nuances and pitfalls of writing fictional accounts of real loved ones. For more Maazel, visit here.
how to fictionalize your family members
without them hating you
FM: [W]hat’s crucial here, to this business of writing about our lives, our families—it’s transformation. I know we’ve talked about this a lot in class: what do you have to do to mess up the kind of truth of your life, to try and make it successful on the page? Because, strict transcription, even if you think you’re transcribing (but you’re not, even if you think you are) often doesn’t really work. You have to do a lot of transforming—most writers, I think, are uncomfortable with the notion of autobiographical fiction. God knows I am. It always feels sort of cheap and easy, like I’ve taken some sort of shortcut. It just seems embarrassing, somehow, to be writing about your family because, as [Wallace] Stegner puts it, “none of us are ever writing autobiographically,” so I don’t know what this means. Is memoir autobiographical?
That’s nonsense. Memoir is a compilation of experiences dramatized by someone who’s organized and edited those experiences in a very particular way. Memory is full of falsehood. Memory is nothing if not a kind of very subjective account of experiences that can never be ratified by the court of truth. Memoir has always read to me like fiction, and fiction is always going to have a kind of asymptotic relationship to the truth. Always trying to get there—I don’t know if you know what an asymptotic graph is, but it’s the kind of thing where you are ever getting closer, closer, closer, but you’re never going to get there. We are always just approximating the truth anyway.
Here’s Lorrie Moore:
I’m never writing autobiography—I would be bored, the reader would be bored, the writing would be nowhere. One has to imagine, one has to create (exaggerate, lie, fabricate from whole cloth and patch together from remnants), or the thing will not come alive as art. Of course, what one is interested in writing about often comes from what one has remarked in one’s immediate world or what one has experienced oneself or perhaps what one’s friends have experienced. But one takes these observations, feelings, memories, anecdotes—whatever—and goes on an imaginative journey with them.
And of course the irony here is that Lorrie Moore has quite famously written about herself and her family, especially in Birds of America. But she’s not having any of it, you know? No writer is ever really going to say, ‘well, yeah that’s my dad’ or ‘that’s my mom’ because again, apart from the embarrassment factor, you might be drawing on your friends and family for source material. But really it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s got everything to do with you. And as soon as you’re mindful of that, you then have a huge responsibility. You have to be able to tell on yourself. How to indict yourself successfully, and even adequately on the page, when you are writing about people who (presumably) you really just want to vilify or demonize, or get back at.
You have to be able to tell on yourself.
Rarely, when we write about our family, do we do so by way of honoring them. Otherwise I don’t think we would do it. Rarely do we find that attractive. ‘My dad is such a great man, I’m going to just write a story about him.’ Who thinks that? ‘My dad broke my heart, I’m going to write about that…’
Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself.
You can always tell a story in which the writer is not telling everything on himself, because there is something very deeply unsatisfying about the characters as we see them. We’ve seen some of that in our class, and I know I do this too in my own work, especially in early drafts. I just don’t want to go there. It’s hard, and it’s challenging, but this is what is required of us. Of course, what this looks like on the page, telling everything about ourselves is an entirely different matter and certainly what writing about our friends and family looks like on the page in actual de facto experience looks a little bit different from the way I’m describing it.
I’ve written about ex-boyfriends and my parents a good deal in a lot of my fiction, and I’ve noticed something kind of interesting and a little depressing as a result. I’ve noticed that there are readers whose narcissism has them seeing themselves everywhere, and readers whose narcissism sees them nowhere. And it’s quite interesting. After my first novel came out, I had this ex-boyfriend who was sure I had written him up as this effeminate Viking—he was convinced that this was him. And of course, he was actually the main character’s totally unreachable love interest who smashes her heart into about nine hundred thousand pieces. They had nothing in common—cosmetically or even character-wise, but in order to write up my narrator’s feelings for this guy, I absolutely had to draw on my own experience, and if this guy hadn’t been such a pig, he would have recognized himself in this person, but of course he didn’t.
Similarly, in a different novel, I wrote of a woman whose habits and speech patterns were remarkably like my mother’s. And it wasn’t all that complimentary. But she never noticed. And I think the reason is that when we are actually adequately depicted, we just don’t recognize ourselves. It’s also because I’ve depicted her in the way I see her, which is clearly not the way she sees herself, and perhaps not the way anyone else would see her either. So this just goes to prove the point that rarely will your friends and family hate you because they won’t even notice it’s them that you’ve written about…for all the reasons I’ve described. So that’s the good news about how to get away with fictionalizing your family—they’re not going to get it. But the better news, as I’ve suggested, is that in fact, you really are fictionalizing them. You’re turning them and yourself into a version of the truth that belongs only to you. And so your final argument on the subject when, God forbid, your father does recognize himself in that abusive, drunken man, you say, ‘Well, look, I have drawn on certain experiences but it’s not you,’ and that’s a very good argument to make because in fact it isn’t him; it can’t be; there’s just no way.
You’re turning them and yourself into a version of the truth
that belongs only to you.
Edna O’Brien: (who’s an unsung hero, I think. I like her work a lot.)
Any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions.” Notice what she says here, “One cannot and should not fabricate emotions.” Not experience, not plot. Emotions. That’s what she’s really going to harp on here.
…and although style and narrative are crucial, the bulwark, emotion, is what finally matters. With luck, talent, and studiousness, one manages to make a little pearl, or egg, or something . . . But what gives birth to it is what happens inside the soul and the mind, and that has almost always to do with conflict. And loss—an innate sense of tragedy.
We draw on the emotional experiences of our family much more than we draw on our actual family members themselves. I am always drawing on my own experiences of heart-wreck and despair and confrontation when writing up new characters and scenes. And this too is autobiography; in fact, there are some stories that are so autobiographical, but have absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s ever happened in my life. But the essence of them—-the thematic content and the emotional conundrums that these people are engaged with—have everything to do with things that matter to me.
Continue the conversation here. (minute 14:58)