History as Story

History comes from the Greek word historia meaning to inquire.  I imagine history to be sort of like an autopsy. Cut the body open and examine its parts. We find the damaged areas and make a supposition. If there’s a knife wound to the heart, we can say it was blood loss.  Then it’s the detective’s (or maybe the storyteller’s) job to figure out why.

History, Women, Voting, United StatesHistory begs for storytelling. Even the word contains story. And what is story, exactly? Story is narrative, story gives meaning to random events. Story creates meaning. Without story, life would be a series of events, disconnected, isolated, and without meaning. No matter if we recreate story from historical fact or from contemporary life, or from imaginative futures, story is part of being human. And when a story doesn’t make sense, we walk away shaking heads, wondering why we wasted our time.

But history is not simply story. History has the added perspective of time. It’s the writer’s job to create importance and meaning from facts that time uncovers. Then the scattered jigsaw pieces must be arranged into a landscape, a face, or a scene. They must be framed. 
Puzzle, Jigsaw Puzzle, Pieces 
Curiosity drives my writing and I’m a research junky. There’s nothing more thrilling than learning some obscure little fact and fitting it into the rest of the story. For example, just the other day I learned that Jews were not allowed to have pets under the Nazi regime. Maybe that’s common knowledge for other Third Reich researchers but it was news to me.

I think it was Isaac Newton who famously gave us this law: for every action there is a reaction. If this, then that. And whether it’s science, math, history, or speculative fiction, a story has to make sense.  And sometimes that means veering away from the facts so that you can be true to your characters and to the story arc.  As a novelist, I’m interested in how the characters feel and the reasoning behind their actions. Guilt and shame, love and fear. These are the jigsaw pieces I want to get right.

Because we humans have something called memory, we can experience events and then re-experience them—embellish them.

Man, Retirement Home, Person, DirectoryI visit a nursing home where I see old people sit and stare vacantly into space. Do they spend their time making a story of their life? If this, then that. If I’d done this, maybe then this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the mind simply grows confused and stagnant. I’d like to think that everyone tries to make sense of their life until the very end—that it unfolds like the pages of a novel.

So if everyone has their own life story to work on, why would anyone read a novel?  David Shields suggests that novels are losing their power and that memoir is the future of storytelling. I have to disagree. I think novels will always be important tools on our journey of self-discovery because they connect us to each other and that connection is where all the power—the magic— happens. 
Puzzle, Share, Truth, Fit
Novels are powered by imagination and go beyond the facts of memoir. They are not just works of self-reflection, they are new creations. It's in creating, not reflecting, that we are go beyond ourselves. And yet, like a paradox, the two are linked—each incomplete without the other. 

Memoir or Fiction?

The other day I attended a workshop facilitated by Maurice Mireau (author of Detachment: An Adoption Memoir).  The topic?  Memoir writing.  It was a worthwhile event.

The difference between fiction and nonfiction is something I’ve often thought about. My first two books have been inspired by true events and yet I was determined to create fiction out of them. Why? I felt that it gave me more freedom to explore my characters.  I had the plot—the historical events—that was straightforward. But I wanted to play with the characters and for that I needed the form of the novel.

Now as I work on my third, which is my most imaginative book yet, I question my imagination and my purpose. I am inventing the plot set against the bigger political scene and have done much research to build a base for the drama of the story.  It’s been an intensely interesting journey.

And yet, for me, as the writer, I seek a different truth than that found in the history books or even in the oral histories of people I interview. I’m seeking the truth about my mother. I’m seeking her reaction to life events. This is my focus. What made my mother tick? Why is this so important to me? Because it helps me to understand the truth about our relationship and insight into myself. (Narcissism? Or maybe just an insatiable curiousity?)

As I continue to explore this relationship, and of necessity that tumultuous history my mother lived through, I find the line between memoir and fiction blurring.  Am I writing fiction or memoir? How do I decide?

Truth, Lie, Street Sign, ContrastIt’s with relief that I’ve discovered that the line between fiction and memoir has become more smudged in recent years. David Shields  (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto) borrows from everyone as he discusses the blurred distinction between fiction and nonfiction. He quotes, among others, Picasso: “Art is not truth, art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.” (82) 

What is memoir?  In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir,  William Zinsser writes that memoir is an attempt at ” inventing the truth”  and not necessarily fact-based.  The novel is an illusion of reality—an invention—with a heavy focus on external plot.  Memoir, on the other hand, focuses more on internal plot. Memoir attempts to discover personal truth, while fiction attempts to entertain through escapism, through invention of reality. Neither excludes the other.

This mumble-jumble of story...mixing up reality and fiction under the guise of truth is what defines creativity.  As artists we borrow, we steal, we re-invent. I’m feeling a tad more confident in my own writing now because my stories are a confusion of fact and fiction—still seeking truth, between the lines. And like Rudyard Kipling says, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  

Looks like there's more than one way to tell the truth!

Recent Posts

It's Just-Spring

Basking in spring sun It's been a slow spring here on the Manitoba prairies.  Rainy, windy, cool.  And yet ... the light grows stronger,...