Last Updated: April 9th, 2019
The artistic value of “making stuff up”
I’ve long been wary of memoirs, autobiographies and anything else plastered with the sticker that reads, “based on a true story.”
I’ve often stated, when it comes to writing, the art is in making stuff up—not strictly adhering to fact or fiction but veering all over the place and, in the process, creating an other, a kind of one-off hybrid, something wholly separate and self-sustaining, a universe unto itself.
I suppose first-time novelists and emerging poets can be forgiven for mining their personal trove of experiences when conceiving and creating their early work. But what happens after that initial “semi-autobiographical” effort has been published and is out there in the world?
Where do you turn next for inspiration, after you’ve ransacked your past and aired your family’s darkest crimes and transgressions? What do you write about after you’ve used up the most interesting material in your life?
This might explain why so many first books are often an author’s best book … and, all too frequently, their last.
The drawbacks of using writing as “public therapy”
I’ve written elsewhere on the fragile, tenuous nature of memory; the unreliability of recollecting events warped by initial trauma or the inevitable, corrosive effects of time.
When we “write from life,” are we really reflecting actual events or, thanks to built-in software (a form of mental self-defense), is each memory itself suspect: edited, altered and ending up closer to what some people today are calling “creative non-fiction”?
In the afterword of my novel Disloyal Son: A False Memoir, a book partially based on the mysterious deaths of two of my father’s brothers, I refute the entire concept of a “true” story.
The sheer impossibility of maintaining a strictly objective point of view while describing events from the distant past with absolute clarity, down to the smallest detail, is evident to anyone with a mental age in the double digits. Besides,
“Even the most intimate journals conceal as much as they illuminate. The selection of what to include and what to omit is, in and of itself, a creative exercise. Providing a cohesive narrative, believable characters, realistic dialogue, any kind of structure or timeline … these are the same dilemmas that confront every writer, regardless of their chosen genre.” – Disloyal Son (Black Dog Press, 2015)
I’ve never been a fan of the notion of writing as a form of public therapy: penning a heart-wrenching memoir of suffering, survival and redemption at the tender age of 23; a latter-day Rimbaud, burning the candle at both ends.
Too often, these efforts descend into sordid “tell-alls,” with their authors taking the opportunity to a) wallow in their misery and victimhood or b) settle old scores, excoriating their well-intentioned parents and baffled siblings for their insensitivity and stupidity, and devoting hundreds of pages to what amounts to a scathing indictment of society’s failure to recognize just how rare and precious they are.
It’s all very well to keep a private diary or journal, a safe place to reflect on the challenges and terrors of life. But when you start imbuing your solitary ruminations with literary pretensions, believing yourself to be another Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank, well, that’s where I probably have to draw the line.
I’ll readily confess to employing a number of incidents and exchanges from my life in my work, but I’ve always been judicious in their use, with their origins carefully disguised (and not by the mere inclusion of, “names changed to protect the innocent.”)
After live readings, I’ve been asked by curious audience members if one of my best-known tales, “Invisible Boy,” is “true,” and I always respond that the story is more emotionally authentic than based on fact.
It’s a harrowing account of abuse and neglect—very credibly presented, documentary-like realism. But “Invisible Boy” is almost entirely a work of my imagination, coloured by not-so-fond memories of a childhood spent in a crazy, volatile household, with my younger self doing his utmost to withdraw, remove himself from the mayhem, disappear…
Art, truth, consciousness and reality
German filmmaker Werner Herzog speaks of an “ecstatic truth” that transcends mundane facts and achieves something greater.
Herzog consciously manipulates elements within his documentaries by inventing scenes and prodding those on-screen with oddball questions. In the process, he achieves a deeper, richer understanding of his subject matter and we, as viewers, are granted a unique entertainment experience.
Herzog is unapologetic for this approach and unrelenting in his scorn for “fly-on-the-wall” documentarians who claim to depict Truth and Reality but, as he asserts, produce efforts that at best provide conventional insights while boring viewers to tears.
I have some sympathy for his point of view. The ultimate form of cinéma vérité, as far as I’m concerned, is produced by those folks who use digital cameras and portable devices to record every moment of their lives, streaming the whole thing in real-time to anyone, anywhere who wants to tune in.
But … is this art?
I’d argue that art requires discrimination—a central, guiding intelligence or consciousness. The artist serves as a filter, screening out ephemera and dross; concentrating our attention on only the most relevant words, sounds and images; and introducing us to places, people and circumstances that expand our perceptions, enlarge our thoughts and enliven our spirits.
That’s even if, strictly speaking, not a single moment of it happens to be true.