On Narrative Non-Fiction

I’ll tell you a secret, writer to writer:

It’s through narrative self-memoir that I’m learning to write fiction.

Anybody (including me in my more drunk-on-despair moments) can spill their guts on the page It’s another matter to fashion it into something immersive, identifiable for others. Essays can do it, recollective meandering can do it, but real narrative does it much, much better. It’s writing stories without the telling lies part, after all, and stories are like a drug to the human mind seeking entertainment.

Narrative memoir is like training wheels.

You have your memories to build off. This is easier than manufacturing histories for that purpose, whether set in the real world or a fantastic or far-future one.

Many of your memories will be vague; and probably for the better, because in a fiction parallel those are not what make for good scenes (cruel as that may be) though they can provide general theme.

And some of your memories will be vivid. They are your story points; your mind has automatically filtered them for you. A few are the most vivid; they are your climaxing and finishing scenes.

The main character, if you are honest with yourself, if you are even the smallest bit aware, will most certainly not be perfect. Your imperfections are what distinguish you.

In trying to understand your life scenes, you will also be motivated to try to understand the other people involved. After all, most of your vivid memories involve other people, for good or ill, and you learn nothing from making them shells. Not even the cruelest.

Also, it is somewhat less scary to write about others because their representations in your mind originate strongly from outside. Later, when you have time, you can come more to terms with the scarier revelation that even these are your own creations, are you. And then you understand better how a writer can hold all different kinds of people inside themselves.

As you link scenes to each other and try to establish connections and motivations and mood, you go through the same gyrations as any fiction writer, even if the source of the building blocks are different.

That’s just some of it.

And yes, you gain a measure of introspection into your own life. It can be perceived as egotistic to turn so inwards, but I think the best writers of any storytelling stripe know themselves better than most.

My life has generally been a nasty one. You may think this is an advantage, but I think it goes against itself as well. It takes a lot more preparation and soul-searching to find moments that aren’t simply drudgeries of emo and pain. To find the common shared ground with an audience and highlight the differences, and to show the changes—good fiction does that sort of thing too.

And yes, this breaks a cardinal rule in some people’s books: the conceit of writing for others. Pure art is done for yourself and only yourself.

However, I do not seek pure art.

I want to understand.

I think in the process of understanding I will lay some demons to rest.

The side product just happens to be better fiction skills. Much of the advice I read long ago and took on faith now ring more sharply.

I have to be able to move on, though. But I think, on finishing these little bittersweet stories, I’ll be able to.

And, the gods willing, begin sweeping my way through the evening of my life before the last and final hours of the dark nights.

I will get better.