John Manchester discovers that his novel contains more truth than his memoir did, and vows to continue writing…even if that means turning the truth of his life into fiction.
A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.
(Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.)
So I thought, why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.
“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.
Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.) But my word is good. I ain’t tellin’.
You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.
You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.
He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)
Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him.
We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry.
Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.
Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.
I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years—like something in a fairy tale—I let it rest…
…and started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.
It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character “Ray”, and everyone he knows.
Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made-up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.
So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.
For more from John Manchester, read Son of a Famous Man
Originally appeared at JohnKManchester.com
Photo courtesy of the author