How does autobiography work in fiction?

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

You know the line: Truth is stranger than fiction? I have a twist on that. I’ve learned through the writing of three books and a fourth in process as I write this essay that the fictional account of my stories have greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual ones.

As memoir has increased in popularity* both in books and movies—“A True Story” being the familiar movie tag—I’ve continued to argue that fiction, written close to the bone, will likely provide the reader with a deeper look into the life and soul of the writer, but more important, the reader if the story is worth your time.

Think first of this question, one that I pose to myself for purposes of this essay: Do you think self-revelation is part of the process of writing?

My answer: Any serious writer who denies it, lies.

I agree with David Shields who argues in favor of self-revelation and to a large extent against the novel that is not self-revelatory. He does so in Reality Hunger through a series of quotes, occasionally his own—unabashedly without full attribution (but that’s another story) using only the name of the writer. Here’s John Berger, “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” And later, the late David Foster Wallace, “I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.” **

A serious writer can’t help but reveal even as the lie of fiction operates.

Lee K. Abbott, a writer and teacher I know and admire, has put the issue succinctly this way: “All stories are true stories, especially the artful lies we invent to satisfy the wishful thinker in us, for they present to us, in disguise often and at great distance, the way we are or would want to be.” ***

My collection of short stories includes three memoir pieces I don’t identify and I will use them here to explain why I argue that the fiction is more powerful, more truthful, if you will, than the so-called true story.

First, I give as example a comparison of what is essentially the same story told in fiction and also in memoir.

I put aside my novel Who by Fire (reviewed by Michael Johnson, regular columnist on art on this site, here) that was close to finished when my husband said after 22 years of marriage, oh-so-Greta-Garbo, “I need to live alone.”

This event stopped me in my tracks—and eventually I blogged my life while I was living it. That blog turned into the memoir (Re)Making Love. That book like Who by Fire is a love story but oddly one that fiction would probably not find credible.

I learned through these two books that the fictional account of my story has greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual one that you can find online and in the 2011 Valentine’s Day issue of Real Simple Magazine where my husband and I tell our story.

Here’s how I learned what the so-called true story didn’t reveal. I am the reader for the audible.com version of Who by Fire. While reading it aloud in an NPR recording studio, I discovered my own book as if for the first time. I realized I’d written this novel to find the man I must have known on the unconscious level I was losing. Good fiction, meaning you know while you’re reading that the writer is risking her life, can go to this place of hard truth in a way that memoir because of its hold on the so-called facts can’t do if the writer is honest—and honesty is the key word here to understand my meaning.

In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland explain our resistance to fiction—or to any art—this way: “[T]he prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of the genius (or, on occasion, madness). … [A]rt itself becomes a strange object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

“Clearly, something’s getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. … [W]hat we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.” ****

I decided to further prove the force of fiction by revising the title character’s name to Olivia in each of The Woman Who Never Cooked’s stories. The allusion is to that character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the comedy that takes center stage in the story “Madness and Folly” about my father after he broke his hip—in real life and here in fiction.

I did this on the free site Wattpad.com and I list the collection as non-fiction though it was originally published as fiction. *****

I could say that I am hidden inside the fiction—but in fact I am not. In the fiction, I used food and adultery as metaphor for the grief I bore through my mother’s, my father’s and my sister’s illnesses and deaths. I wasn’t sure who I was. As a prime example, I didn’t know when I wrote “The Woman Who Never Cooked,” the title story, that I would become that woman.

When I first wrote each of the stories the central character had the same name in every story because I knew that what I was doing was direct, tough purposefully artful exaggeration of autobiography. My agent at the time suggested that I change the main character’s name to hide that fact. But the book only achieved publication after I added two of the three memoir pieces that had been published in literary magazines. All the stories have been published first that way, and the importance of the small literary magazine, I talk about here on this site.

The stories in the collection that are memoir are: “Rugalach,” a tribute to my mother; “Losing,” a tribute to my father; and the eponymous closing story “The Woman Who Never Cooked.”

Let’s talk about the fiction and why I am now convinced that each of the other eight stories is more powerful, more truthful than the memoir—with the exception of “The Woman Who Never Cooked.” I say this about the last because it is written in third person like a fairy tale. The opening line is, “There once was a woman with 327 cookbooks who never cooked.” Through food, this true-to-its-core memoir tells the story of my mother’s, my father’s and my sister’s illnesses and the effect on living that their trials had on me.

On Wattpad.com, I changed the central character in all the stories to “Olivia.” But here on FactsandArts you may read for free “The Burglar” that won two prizes and was published twice before appearing in the book of short stories. I’ll use this story to explain.

You would think me mad if I’d written this as memoir because the actual burglar is alive and well in this story—something only fiction can achieve without madness. Even Robin Hood and maid Marian appear in the story in an Internet game. But the burglar himself is essential to express the love letter to my husband that I wrote here in the aftermath of my mother’s death and a burglary that actually did occur in our home while we were away visiting both our children at college. These facts I compress into the story’s essence.

So where is the truth? Does Ruth/Olivia actually desire the burglar? Does a burglar come to her home from his on Virgilia, a street near mine where the burglary actually occurred? Does it matter that I still own the locket that is in the burglar’s pocket and that the actual burglar chose all my other jewelry to steal and left behind the locket with its crude seal?

With that fact, the story wrote itself. Locket in hand that my mother had saved with a lock of her mother’s hair sealed inside, I went on the journey of discovery and the result is heartfelt non-fiction that cannot accurately be called that.

Joyce Carol Oates has put the conundrum of literary fiction so often spurned for the “true” story because, What can one learn from a “fiction”? this way:

“So much of literature springs from a wish to assuage homesickness, a desire to commemorate places, people, childhoods, family and tribal rituals, ways of life—surely the primary inspiration of all: the wish, in some artists clearly the necessity, to capture in the quasi permanence of art that which is perishable in life. Though the great modernists—Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Lawrence, Woolf, Faulkner—were revolutionaries in technique, their subjects were intimately bound up with their own lives and their own regions; the modernist is one who is likely to use his intimate life as material for his art, shaping the ordinary into the extraordinary.” ******

What I hope to have done here and for all the stories I’ve written that are quote fiction is to lift the curtain on that much misunderstood word. I argue that to dismiss out of hand the truth that close-to-the-bone, self revelatory fiction reveals is to miss a connection that may reveal to you those quote truths that would otherwise remain unspoken. The reason? Fiction, like all the arts that reveal through artifice, frees the unsayable. Why oh why would any of us who read or go to movies or art museums or photographic exhibits wish to miss that unsayable truth because we want the quote true story.

·         * As an example, Leigh Gilmore, author of The Limits of Autobiography, notes that “…[T]he number of new English language volumes categorized as ‘autobiography or memoir’ roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s. (Analysis based on data from the Worldcat database). See p. 1, footnote 1 of her book, Cornell University Press, 2001.

·         ** David Shields, Reality Hunger, “412’ John Berger, p. 139; ‘421,’ David Foster Wallace, p. 141, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

·         *** Lee K. Abbott, “Fifty Years of Puerto Del Sol,” Puerto Del Sol, Vol, 50, 2015, p. 194.

·         **** David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear, Capra Press 1997 p. 89.

·         ***** Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, Mid-list Press, 2006. Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, kindle version, Outer Banks Publishing Group, 2013.

·         ****** “Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature,” Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015.

 




     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Literary Essays

Added 24.05.2018

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story “The Middle Years.” Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years.

Added 26.04.2018
I would like to share a love story – framed by two solitary moments (separated by fourteen years, two months, three days, and sixteen hours) before the same telephone in the same hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. But, to begin with, let me go back to the first meeting I had with the young woman. I met Julie in a museum, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 22, 2003, a few minutes after 10:30 AM – just three days before the bicentennial of Mr. Emerson’s birth, and three days after my own thirty-third birthday. But I hope no one will think that I believe I can parallel Mr. Emerson on any greater terms than that small coincidence.
Added 25.04.2018
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.” When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa....
Added 03.04.2018

Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Added 23.02.2018
For two years I was president of a member group of the Road Runners Club of America. I enjoyed my service, but I did not seek a second term.
Added 23.09.2017

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K.

Added 09.06.2017

As a pianist, I have spent a lifetime reading interviews with other pianists. But I would know, above all, what it is precisely that others think about when they play. People often ask me that question.

Added 06.02.2017

During all of my adult life as an author and pianist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been for me the supreme and unremitting guide to the Western canon.

Added 01.02.2017

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to conceive, plot, write and publish a series of well-constructed novels.

Added 24.01.2017

The Wall Street Journal has made an egregious error. I'm not talking about their coverage of Donald Trump, Russian hacking, or any other such ephemera. This concerns something much more serious: classic literature.

Added 07.01.2017

A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.

Added 14.10.2016

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

Added 13.09.2016

It is 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – considered by many to be the world’s number one storyteller. His books have received enthusiastic responses from millions of children all around the world.

Added 05.03.2016

Language pedants who take pleasure in policing other people’s use of grammar often have an air of respectability about them, but it’s usually a sheen hiding something more pernici

Added 23.10.2015
NEW YORK – It was 1985, and change was in the air in the Soviet Union. Aging general secretaries were dropping like flies.
Added 25.09.2015

How many novels can truly be called epoch-defining?