I was listening to an interview on CBC one Saturday — it was Writers and Company, I think. There was a novelist being interviewed on her new book.

“How much of this is autobiographical?” asked the interviewer.

“Nothing,” replied the novelist. “But at the same time, it is all true. Although it is fiction, it expresses truth in a way that memoir can’t.  That is the way it is with fiction,” she continued. My ears perked up. She went on to point out that memoir asserts that it is fact, but in reality is more fiction than a novel.  The memoirist stretches the truth and embellishes the facts to paint a nimbus above his or her own head, while placing themselves in a situation far more interesting or perilous than the “actual” truth would describe.

I was livid and found myself yelling vowels at the car radio. I was too angry for consonants; it was vowels only. My first book, a memoir called As You Were, had just been accepted by a publisher, and my warm, rosy glow of self-satisfaction had just been hosed down with cold water on national radio.

How could she say that? I had taken great pains to paint as accurate a picture of the situation as I could, and I had an editor who was insisting that I back up my story by citing my sources and adding, what seemed to be, endless footnotes and a bibliography. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing on the radio.

At home, I began looking for additional information on the perception of the memoir and found some startling news.  Although what novelist on CBC said didn’t fit with what I had written, there were scads of people out there writing memoirs and autobiographies that felt it was acceptable to embellish, enhance and invent the truth in their work. I had to give my head a shake.  I had thought the whole idea of the memoir was to expose the truth. But, there is a slippery slope in the memoir genre that some people are very comfortable sliding down.  In fact, some folks advocate tobogganing down that slope.  Although I didn’t change the names in my book, I understand why a writer would want to alter the names of people to keep them from being embarrassed by the writer’s desire to open his or her own kimono, so to speak. But there are writers who not only change names, they advocate creating composite characters, compressing time, inventing situations that never existed, and placing themselves in conversations with manufactured characters or places. When questioned on it, they quote “literary licence” or a desire to keep the pace up and the story interesting. If the story isn’t interesting, don’t bother telling it, or tell the story and call yourself a novelist, I say.

This information was from a series of discussions I found on Amazon in the chat section. I have no idea how many of these folks participating have published their work or if they will ever write and publish.

Thankfully, I don’t have to write another memoir. Mine is done, and I am happy to say I didn’t compromise the truth. I understand, now too, what she meant by truth in fiction.  I have finished my first novel and see in it, and in the process of writing fiction, a different kind of truth.  A legitimacy of thought, a philosophical truth.

So, I reluctantly have to say that the CBC novelist was right, at least sometimes — and I take back all the vowels I hurled at her in the car.

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