Finding the Form: From Fiction to Memoir

February 16, 2016 § 43 Comments

Dorothy Rice

Dorothy Rice

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.”
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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.

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