If you’ve ever written a personal essay or memoir or even retold an elaborate story that relies on memory to a rapt group at a party, you know that the truth can be amorphous. That’s why they call it creative nonfiction. I’m not talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey fabrication, but rather Rashomon-style subjectivity, where witnesses' perception plays a large role in the telling. (Many a reality TV star, edited in an unflattering light, would undoubtedly agree.)
This may seem odd coming from a new novelist (literally my first book came out two days ago, so forgive me if I'm overly enthusiastic!), but, before I wrote Semi-Charmed Life, personal essays were as far afield from concrete facts as I strayed. As co-editor of my high school literary magazine colloquially dubbed (in an inspired feat of imagination) “The Lit Mag,” instead of writing fiction, I contributed a first person true story about witnessing a man having a heart attack in the park while my father taught me to ride a bike and then a thinly veiled tale about “a girl” throwing up after drinking too much at a party the night before.
It was years before I discovered Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and realized that I was writing creative nonfiction, not just stealing from reality to pad my lack of imagination. (If, by the way, you have not yet read Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” go find it immediately! It will change your life!)
ARE YOU A FICTION OR A NONFICTION PERSON?
After struggling to find the right career, I became a journalist, immersed in a world where facts are not only paramount, but essential. Details are checked, rechecked and verified before a piece is pronounced complete. (Well, unless the article is online often, but that’s another story.) The point is that many of us writers consider ourselves either fiction or nonfiction people and I was decidedly all about “the truth.” Or so I thought.
So, when I sat down to try to write a novel two and a half years ago, I figured that crossing the aisle into fiction was really just a dalliance. In fact, I was terrified that I’d fall into the same old trap, writing only in my own voice as a character who was a slightly more bumbling version of me (in other words, the way I perceive myself).
I wondered, after all this time: Could I even be a fiction person?
RULES THAT HELP YOU MAKE THINGS UP
I made one decision early on in the writing process that I think proved wise: I chose to write my novel in the third person, so I couldn’t lapse into that familiar first person voice from personal essay. That may have saved me.
I did end up writing “what I know.” And I think that can be advisable if you’re just starting out with fiction, a good first toe dip into the realm of make believe. Not that I planned to focus on the art world (in which I grew up), to parody my own Upper West Side lefty intellectual upbringing, to make my main character a carbo loader like me, to draw on my absurd experiences covering the beauty and fashion worlds—it just happened.
To clarify, there are many differences between these characters and the people in my life. The story is truly fictional, not factual. These people aren’t real. For instance, the main character Beatrice Bernstein’s parents refuse to ever leave New York City and that is a major issue for them, while my parents travel the globe more than most people. But they do have similar jobs to my parents etc.
The foundation in reality made it easier for me to let the story get wilder and crazier as it progressed. To my surprise, I wrote a book that was not only fictional, but also a bit fantastical. I could hardly be surprised by the satirical jabs and pop culture references to everything from Britney Spears to The Bachelor that I wrote because those are mechanisms I always draw on. Even the sexual and romantic tension I created wasn’t a huge shocker, considering my love of romantic comedies from When Harry Met Sally to Clueless. But I was truly shocked by the elements of magic realism that made their way onto the page. There’s no abracadabra Harry Potter magic, but there’s an other worldliness and flexibility with what's possible that emerges.
If you are thinking of making the leap from nonfiction to fiction and are feeling a little intimidated as I did, you might want to try this exercise:
It’s funny: When Madeline Bernstein (the protagonist’s mother) appears in Semi-Charmed Life, she uses this expression over and over again: “And that’s a fact.” In a way, it’s as if she serves as a reminder for me and the reader about the relative fluidity of truth.
Or at least that’s my version of the story.