I’ve written creative nonfiction, journalism, fiction, and memoir. When it’s all said and done, and if I had to label myself, I guess I would call myself a memoirist. But even that is not quite right. Must I label myself?
Maybe naming what I am can help me keep my work in perspective, give it some parameters. But even with that said, I read experimental works like the book I’m reading now—Rising Tide Falling Star by Philip Hoare. There is no easy way to categorize this work. It’s part fiction, part memoir, part journalism, part diary. It’s as if the author is writing what simply comes to him through his heart and soul, and labels are just ridiculous constructs, bins bookstores need to keep the place organized.
This is on my mind today because I am now writing, simultaneously, a work of fiction and a series of personal essays on the exact same subject, with the same characters, with the same theme, same premise, same…everything. Well, nearly. The fiction is, yes, fiction. Not every detail or movement in the story is fact, but it is based on relative truth. It feels a bit like a writing exercise, the prompt of a professor to try writing a personal essay then writing the same story as a work of fiction. The student is to learn something from this. I’m not sure I am.
But what I am learning, slowly, is how to make this “story” the most impactful it can be. Is it best told as fiction or is it best told as fact? Not journalism, but the essence of truth, the kind of thing Joan Didion spoke about. In an interview in the Paris Review, Didion talked about how different the genres are for a writer who works in both.
“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Every word, sentence in the fiction will always be there, underneath the rewrites. The personal essays are less layered. However, unlike the fiction, they evolve into what it is I’m writing to say only as I write.
Another Didion-ism, one many of us know…
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
The theme only reveals itself through the work of writing. This is true, to some extent, as I write fiction, but it is absolutely the case when I write the personal essay. I have no idea what I’m feeling about the piece before I write it. In fiction, I know where I’m going but really have no idea how to get there. It’s like driving without Google Maps. In fact, no map at all. Even the old paper ones we’d buy at the gas station.
I’ve never done this before, writing the same story, essentially, from the perspective of two different genres. But like Philip Hoare’s work, I wonder, in the end, if it matters. Someone is going to label what it is I’ve written, someone will decide if it’s the fiction or the essays that get the job done, or if these pieces say something meaningful at all. But for the writer, I wonder, is that our job? Determining what will be “impactful?” Isn’t our job just to write what we think is the truest way to say what we want? Whether that be fiction or nonfiction, poems or prose, doesn’t really matter, does it?
I’m going to keep writing both, at the same time, and the answers to those questions will reveal themselves in time, I suspect. Like Didion, I’m going to find out what I think.