Finding the Form: From Fiction to Memoir
February 16, 2016 § 43 Comments
A guest post by Dorothy Rice:
I have wanted to write books, novels to be precise, since I was a girl. Impressed by the likes of Alcott, Dickens and Austen, I pictured a respectable row of leather-bound volumes on the library shelf, each bearing my name in gold leaf.
The fantasy evolved over time. I admitted the possibility of paperbacks and stories that might earn a few bucks yet not ascend to the pantheon of timeless classics and fancy bindings. My books had titles, plots and characters. I designed cover art and crafted elevator pitches. But I didn’t write them.
I waited for life to simplify, for jobs to become less consuming and for children to grow, sustained by the notion that when I was ready, the stories I’d been saving up would write themselves. After all, the idea was the hard part.
Over five years ago, my father, nearing ninety, fell. He cracked his head on the kitchen linoleum and survived emergency surgery, barely. When I visited, he seemed to have shrunk several sizes. His voice came from a distance. His gnarled fingers gripped the thin blanket.
“One foot in the grave I’m afraid,” he said, attempting a wry smile. “Old age, I don’t recommend it.” He said that too, with a sage nod, as if the sentiment was something new. Platitudes, “old chestnuts,” were his conversational stock-in-trade.
He had always been a private man. He frowned at emotional excess, said it was unseemly, unnecessary. Not knowing how long he might live, there were things I wanted to say, and hear, conversations neither of us knew how to have.
Driving home from the hospital, cheeks wet with tears, the winding road swam before me. The obvious became clear. My father would die. And I was well over fifty, past the halfway mark. Yet I wasn’t writing. I feared I’d waited too long.
I began to write, not one of the novels I’d held in reserve but rather about my dad, a prolific artist and teacher whom I’d always admired and emulated, yet never felt at ease with. I sat by his bedside. Uninvited. I filled the awkward silent patches with prompts and questions and, when those failed to elicit any response, unbidden soliloquies, as I struggled to shake the tacit rules of our relationship.
“You remind me of a dental hygienist,” he said, his smile more sour than wry.
In the two years before he died, I filled notebooks with my father’s scant words and gestures and the memories they conjured. I then wove the minutiae of his final days around a contrived plot involving a fictive daughter losing the father she scarcely knew. It never occurred to me to attempt anything but fiction. When I imagined I was well along, I signed up for a novel revision workshop offered by the author of a series of detective novels.
He reviewed the initial pages of my manuscript, dragging a red pen down each page, circling the rare concrete noun or action verb. “Nothing happens,” he said, “try throwing a corpse onto the page.”
My rambling discourse on fathers and daughters became a murder mystery, the first victim an aging artist, the second his wife, a vamp with a swoop of dark hair covering one eye. There was now no doubt. This was fiction. The kids in the junior college creative writing classes I enrolled in dug my twisted mystery set in San Francisco in the 60s. Encouraged, I churned out hundreds of pages. The finish was in sight. To give my draft a final polish and secure an agent, I enrolled in an MFA program.
Initially my lead professor was jazzed. “It’s sort of noir,” he said. That sounded cool. I immersed myself in the genre. I pared down my sentences, distilled the dialog. In workshop there were questions about motive, character development, believability, lack of subtext. I puffed my manuscript back up, six hundred plus pages of forged art, foggy avenues, envy and lust.
My professor suggested the story was perhaps now more hippie soap opera than noir. Not the reaction I’d hoped for. “Set it aside,” he said, “work on something new, then reread it in six months and see if you don’t agree.” I waited four months and was grateful for his honesty.
I extracted the murders, the tenuous subplots and red herrings, the ill-conceived Irish detective, until I was back with my “fictional” daughter and her dying father.
In the final quarter of my MFA program—where for two years I’d studied fiction and screenwriting—I took a nonfiction class, my belated introduction to a genre I’d always associated with the terrifying true-crime books and celebrity biographies my sister devoured. My first essay was about finding my father in that hospital bed. Those few thousand words felt more honest, more alive on the page, than anything else I had written.
With the tools acquired over five years of reading and writing practice, of learning from generous, talented writers and professors, I abandoned the “novel” and returned to my initial pages about my dad. I accepted that it would be hard work, as much craft and persistence as inspiration. Alas, my stories would not write themselves.
I never planned to write memoir. But we write what demands to be written, what’s in our heads and our hearts. My father was in mine and all the convoluted efforts to wrap my truth in fiction rang false. What began as an attempt to rationalize our relationship, perhaps even to “fix” it by having us evolve beyond ourselves in fiction, became a tribute to a complex man, perhaps never to be understood, but to be honored nonetheless and depicted to the best of my ability. When I stopped trying to turn the hole inside me into a story, I found the story.
Despite my determination to force it into some other frame, the material found its form. It took awhile. But as my father used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Dorothy Rice earned an MFA in creative writing at age 60. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice 1918-2011 was published in November 2015 by Shanti Arts, and her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Louisville Review, Brain Child Magazine and a few others.
Inspiring! Thank you~
Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.
Writing is a call, and how do you know it’s your call? Well you know it if it’s hard, time-consuming, raises eyebrows, but it’s still what you want to do first thing in the morning. Thanks for sharing this.
Exactly! Well said.
I am also in the processing of writing my memoirs. There are family members who know all the key points of my life, but that is almost a clinical analysis over a specific time frame. They have no knowledge of events in my childhood; the influences; my isolation over my school years; my introduction to a social circle; first girlfriend; emotional challenges…. etc. etc. etc. I am hoping that anybody reading my stories at some point after I have gone, will have a pretty good understanding of not only who I was…. but also why I was that way. 🙂
It is a wonderful and fascinating project to tackle! 🙂
Thanks so much for reading the essay and commenting. Yes, it can be difficult, though gratifying, to write about family. What works best for me is just trying to relate stories, to get back into the scene and in a sense relive those moments.
Thank you for this.
I was writing fiction for my MFA. I watched fellow student from nonfiction to fiction, who seemed to be writing nonfiction in disguise. I read the memoir and fictional versions of Craig Lesley raising a child. I graduated from the program with a book-length novel about an eleven year old boy struggling to find life in the desert. I was 55. My mother died the following week and I stopped writing fiction. I have been blogging and writing nonfiction, and although my father, like yours, was a private man, and like you I took notes about his life, I have been trying to write about my mother.
I commend you for completing your task and for sharing the journey. It is inspirational. It is generous. I look forward to reading your books. (There will be more.)
Thanks so much for reading the essay and commenting Jan. It sounds as though we had some common experiences in graduate school!
This is a beautiful post. I have been writing about my mother for more than a decade. I now have 74,000 words one after another. But I keep thinking I haven’t gotten to the crux of it, the why of it, the what-am-I-trying-to-say of it, as if I have to say something profound, other than simply telling a profound story. Thank you.
P.S. I forgot to add that I’m 70 and intend to finish my memoir and publish it.
May I suggest that you stop trying to say something profound, and just record as much as you know. I am reminded of poets who try to follow some prior concept and structure. From my perspective, they simply produce a technical conglomeration of words which mean nothing to me. In contrast, I read many simple lines which I can immediately connect with and perhaps become emotionally involved as a result. Perhaps if you can just tell the stories and let the readers relate however they can based on their own history and/or knowledge of your subject? Just some thoughts. 🙂
I think you are spot on. A friend recently read my manuscript and said, “What are you trying to say? I think you have to have a takeaway at the end of the chapter.” At that point, I wondered if I’m supposed to be writing a self-help book, or the story.
I like this…”tell the stories and let the readers relate however they can based on their own history and/or knowledge.”
Thank you for your feedback.
You’re very welcome. You clearly have an ability to write …. so write, but don’t get side tracked into a complex analysis of whys and hows. Just tell your stories. I am pretty sure that as you progress, you will have many “Aha!” moments. Revelations that were not possible earlier in the memoirs. All the best. 🙂
Thanks so much for reading and commenting Martha. It sounds as though you are on quite a journey with the story you are writing! Reading the notes below is also interesting. I imagine if you bring your mother and any other characters alive on the page, and show the relationships, the interactions, the reader will find the resonance, the universality and hence the profundity. Easier said than done of course. Best of luck.
You and colinandray gave me an answer today I’ve been seeking for months. Thank you.
I’m 60 and working on a memoir, so I really enjoyed this essay. You father sounds intriguing; I love to read about artists and how they live their artistic practice. I’ll bet looking over all his past art work must have been fascinating. What a treasure to have.
Great post. Thanks for sharing this story. I published my first book at 50 and I have several more in me. It’s a race to get them published in my remaining years.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting Valorie. Best wishes with your memoir!
And thank you Don. Sorry. The comment from above posted after your name! I know what you mean about the urgency to be productive. I feel I wasted many productive years. Though I also know rushing doesn’t help, at least for me. It comes when it comes and I am not a fast writer.
Thank you so much for this post, Dorothy! I’m 58 and although I’ve been writing on and off for many years, I haven’t made much effort to publish. There are times when I feel that time is running out, that it may already be too late. But you’ve reminded me that it’s never too late. Also, you tell in a very entertaining way of how easily we writers can be distracted and derailed by other people’s good intentions. And yet we can learn so much in the process.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, never too late. Writing is one of those things that so long as the mind remains active, can be done a very long time!
How lovely to think, Dorothy, that your true calling found you at last. Thanks for the inspiring essay — I’m just beginning to apply to MFAs myself, and I wasn’t born yesterday. ;o)
Good luck with the MFA. Among other things, my program helped me build a new group of friends, as I hadn’t known any other aspiring writers during my career. And, I won’t lie, I’d still love to write fiction!
Loved this. I am over 50 and writing but not yet fully writing what is in my heart- thanks for the encouragement.
Best wishes Sue. One day at a time gets you there.
I cant believe the parallels to my own situation – except my story is about my grandfather; – first the story was all fact and BORING, then it was all fiction and FICTION, now it’s becoming memoir. Thank you for showing me I’m not alone here!
Ah! Interesting. It really does sound like a parallel journey!
Your comment intrigues me, noting that you are writing about your grandfather. Is it really boring? Whereas he may not have made world shattering discoveries, or established new sports achievement records, he was living in a “different time”. Surely there are stories which reflect a time without computers and cell phone technology? Perhaps he lived through “war years”? Perhaps his work, or his interests can reflect his era? Anecdotal comments can prove very interesting to anybody who had no experience of his “times”? Perhaps there is more interesting aspects to his life than you imagined?
how astonishing that someone said, “throw a corpse in!” great post. I’m 59, 400 pages into my first novel. Not a day goes by where I don’t wonder WTF I am doing.
Ha! it wasn’t a bad suggestion. He was a writer of detective fiction after all. I just took it too literally. Best wishes with the novel. 400 pages is fantastic!
“I never planned to write a memoir.” Those words could’ve been pulled out of my mouth. I’ve always written fiction, but only recently have I considered memoir, which surprises the hell out of me, but it’s also exciting. Thank you for this validating piece. It’s hard so hard to put aside hundreds of pages of fiction, but sometimes we must.
I know what you mean about the difficulty of setting so much work aside. Interesting on the shift from fiction to memoir. For me, I think it has to do with finding voice, which I still hope to find in fiction one day, but I’m not there yet.
“…we write what demands to be written”
Truth, simply stated. Thank you.
This is wonderful. I’m always saying that your writing will teach you what you need to know. Yours did, because you were willing to listen to it. Nevertheless, I’m angry at those teachers who wanted to force your writing into a niche. Good writing finds its own form, but marketing departments and, it seems, some teachers don’t like that. They don’t recognize important writing unless they can categorize it. You might be interested in my “Genres and Dump Dogs,” which touches on this subject: http://writethroughitblog.com/2014/03/18/genres-and-dump-dogs/. Keep telling the stories that want to be told!
Susanna, thanks so much for the comments. In truth, I am more grateful than anything else to the teachers I have been fortunate to work with. Both of these writers forced me to consider my manuscript from a reader’s perspective – in the one instance, I lacked plot and conflict and the essential elements of story and in the second instance I was meandering without a clear trajectory. It is on me that I took the feedback so literally and turned my novel into a murder mystery! I might just as easily have recognized what he was really saying, which was, I later realized, “this is pretty boring stuff Rice, make something happen!” And, all the lessons learned from writing a bad murder mystery work equally well for bringing memoir to life. Thanks so much for the link to your blog; I enjoyed checking it out!
It just goes to show that it’s never too late to start anything. Thanks for the inspiration!
Absolutely! Thanks Kim.
I love this, thank you for sharing your dad and your journey.
Thanks for sharing your journey. I find it fascinating to learn about the process by which writers end up with their final draft. Congratulations on persevering down your long and winding road. I also had an experience at the side of my father’s deathbed, but the experience was so fraught for me that I think I better write about something else first.