My Very End of the Universe: Flashing from Memoir to Fiction

October 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

PhotoAaronTeelWe continue to explore Rose Metal Press’ fascinating new flash anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the FormThis week, Meg Pokrass interviews Aaron Teel about Teel’s novella in flash Shampoo Horns.  Teel’s novella incorporates a number of pieces originally written as memoir, including one that appeared in Brevity’s Winter 2008 issue:

MP:  When or why did you first get the inkling that your memoir stories such as “The Widow’s Trailer” had the potential to be linked and shaped into a novella-in-flash?

AT: I wrote “The Widow’s Trailer” and a couple of others without any kind of larger project in mind, but kept finding myself wanting to return to that world. There’s something about the confines of a secluded, self-contained place that’s very exciting to me from a storytelling perspective and that lends itself, I think, to an episodic structure.

MP: Can you give us an example of the way in which you navigated that ambiguous terrain between fiction and memoir while writing Shampoo Horns?

AT: Perversely, making the switch to fiction allowed me to see those characters more clearly than I had. My actual memories of being around Cherry Tree’s age are fuzzy and distant and composed mostly of disconnected sense-images or anecdotes that have been told and retold and have, at best, a nebulous relationship with journalistic truth. The memoir material allowed me to access a set of emotions and images that I could more fully explore with fiction than I was capable of doing with any fidelity to my half-formed memories.

MP: How does emotional memory inform the process of reshaping memoir into fiction?

AT: Emotional memory informs everything. It’s difficult to imagine a peopled, empathetic fiction (or memoir) of any kind that doesn’t draw on the author’s emotional memory. I don’t know that it’s actually any easier to write from the perspective of a character that’s loosely based on a former version of one’s self, though. Whether working in memoir or fiction, a writer has to tap into his/her own well of experience when rendering the sticky, humiliating stuff of being human.

MP: Do you have advice for other literary adventurers who hope to embark on the same path with their writing?

AT: Mining one’s own memory for fiction is a valuable experience for a writer, I think. There’s a reason so many first works are largely autobiographical. Whether working in memoir or fiction, though, I would recommend concerning one’s self firstly with subjective truth and allowing your reader to inhabit the human, and therefore necessarily subjective, point of view of your subject. Make your reader see and feel what and how your characters see and feel. Even journalism, as we know from constant example, only pretends at objectivity—but a memoirist or a fiction writer who draws on her own experience is under no obligation to pretend.


Aaron Teel hails from Austin, Texas, and is currently an MFA fiction fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared previously in Tin House, Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Brevity, and others. His novella-in-flash Shampoo Horns won the Rose Metal Press Sixth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest in 2012.

Turning Fact Into Fiction: Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns

August 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Aaron Teel’s new chapbook, Shampoo Horns, winner of the Sixth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, contains a version of a powerful essay published many years back in Brevity, “The Widow”s Trailer.” Teel changed that essay some, along with other early work based in memoir, to fit into a fictional narrative, and he published the chapbook as fiction. Teel is one helluva writer; the book is startling, vivid, sharp as a chicken’s teeth, and the prose is on fire. Thinking that Teel’s decision to move to the fictional frame was an interesting jumping off point for discussion of genre, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore asked to interview Teel and explore his decision.

MOORE:  I’m curious why you now call the essay, included in the chapbook, fiction, and what you’ve changed now that it has been re-categorized?

TEEL: Thanks Dinty, I’m really grateful to you for publishing that piece. It was the second one I’d written from this collection, after ‘Tater’s Nipple.’  The responses I got from those two pieces were sort of the impetus for the rest. I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, and I had this idea that I wanted to write my own kind of Nabokovian memoir inspired by the early chapters of Speak, Memory. But instead of being about a kid surrounded by servants and a comfortable aristocratic life in the Russian countryside, it’d be about a kid growing up in a trailer park, in Texas– but still with the lush sensory detail, word play, and fragmented, self-contained stories that added up to a larger narrative. After about five or six pieces were written, I kind of hit a wall with it and lost the inspiration. I put it away for about a year. When I came back to it, I had the idea that it needed a traumatic central and symbolic event that everything else could spin around. A tornado just made the most sense. I also changed the names of the characters to put a layer of distance on them, and that was really freeing. Wherever that nebulous line between fiction and creative nonfiction lies, I was pretty sure I had crossed it at that point, so the whole thing had to be called fiction. I was never interested in writing ‘essays’ or using any kind of journalistic approach. It was more about mining my own experience for inspiration. I struggled with that for a while, but I think now that I probably stayed truer to my Nabokovian ideal than I would have otherwise, unless you believe he literally lost a butterfly when he was a kid that he found forty years later, halfway around the world.

MOORE: Your decision to add the tornado as a central event is a beautiful illustration of how sticking to the nonfiction account of life can reveal one truth and how moving the story into the fictional realm can reveal a different truth, neither being better nor worse than the other. What did bringing in the tornado allow you to see about your childhood story that you might not have seen had you not made that choice?

TEEL: I agree with you completely about fiction and non-fiction revealing different but equally valid truths.

The tornado was more of an organizing device than anything else, and a convenient metaphor for adolescence, the sense of having your life dictated by forces beyond your control. It also fit nicely into the trailer park motif. I liked the idea of playing with some of the clichéd trailer park associations, but presenting them in a way I hadn’t seen before.

MOORE: And if you had stuck to the truth – the truth of your memory, at least – how do you think the book would have resolved itself differently?

TEEL: I don’t know if it allowed me to see anything I hadn’t seen about my own childhood experience as much as it provided an objectified symbol for some of the emotions I wanted to convey and allowed me to do it succinctly. I’m not sure how the book would have resolved without that frame either, which is probably why I put it away for so long before coming back to it as fiction.

Shampoo Horns at Rose Metal Press

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