The Story Is The Key

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If you celebrated, I hope you had a pleasant Christmas. I happened to come across this blog piece recently and bookmarked it for reference. Alexander Nazaryan, last January, in the New York Daily News:

….The truth is, your life is boring. So is mine. So are most lives, which does not make them any less worthwhile. It just makes them not very good material for a memoir….

….if you’re really burning to write, consider writing a fake memoir. You know, with made-up people not at all like yourself who experience things you did not actually experience. Maybe invent a place, delve into ways of being that are not inherent to your actual self.

That’s fiction. We have a dearth of good fiction, but a surfeit of bad memoir. We should fix that problem.

Is such criticism of memoirists fair? The famous photojournalist Robert Capa – whose memoir, incidentally, is superb – noted that if your pictures are not good enough, it is because you are not close enough. Could not much the same be said for writing?

What is vital to recall, however, was Capa was not shooting “selfies”; he was focusing on subjects other than himself. In broad terms, are many of the memoirists Mr. Nazaryan dismisses simply insecure about their ability to write about that which is away from themselves? Is that why they write, essentially, “selfies”? I am only asking; it is for others to answer such questions.

Photo of my hardcover copy of Slightly Out Of Focus.
Photo of my hardcover copy of Slightly Out Of Focus.

That said, if we do have a “dearth of good fiction,” maybe we should ask from where we often get “good fiction” in the first place? Does “good fiction” tumble out of the sky onto a keyboard, utterly “invented”? Of course not. Think of all the many wonderful novels which stem from varying degrees of fact. How much “fiction” is rooted in fact an author has “fictionalized”?

Interestingly, memoir demands gripping and compelling real-life happenings and people. In turn, fiction requires inventing happenings and characters to achieve gripping and compelling reading. Thus the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed, or even mutually exclusive. Touch points are evident.

Consider Capa’s excellent memoir. It included pseudonyms, personal life “inaccuracies,” and elements of artistic license. In short, arguably, in places, “fiction.” Yet that was also deliberate, as he considered it the basis for a screenplay he hoped would eventually in film form convey “the truth” as he had experienced it. The book was never intended to serve as an encyclopedia entry.

The key is always the story. Is any tale – memoir or fiction – “good enough”? What matters most in a writing effort is that the final product resonates with readers as worthy of their time, interest and, above all, money. Is that not, one might say, the bottom line?

Further thoughts?

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