“Write what you know” may seem a tired trope of fiction workshops by now, but I can’t imagine resorting to the alternative. Whenever I read a story not grounded in some very real kind of experience, I am confronted with the sensation of having accepted a counterfeit dollar bill. There may be art in it, and it may pass muster for many people, but sometimes a lack of authenticity renders a story nearly unreadable. This is not to say that science fiction, or historical fiction, or “magic realism” is unreadable; just that any story must have in it some germ of the author’s actual life if it is going to be worth reading.
My MFA thesis is a series of loosely related short stories, all based heavily on my personal experiences growing up in the East Bay. Some of these stories are factual with one or two minor details changed to make a good story a little better. Others just sprang up from the imagination like weeds, too tenacious to stay unseen for long. The extent to which these fictions are real is something I think about all the time.
One of my thesis stories, “1989, Summer” is about a day that really did happen at about that time. I have done this more than once, taken an actual event and just written it down with the unimportant things left out, and felt like I had a good story. The problem is one of memory. Barring the adventurous types who go do something crazy and then get paid by Esquire to relate it all in sordid detail, we don’t live our lives trying to make stories out of them. We live first to live. Our actions and goals may be immediate or long-term, but they have nothing to do with anything so superficial as a denouement. So we go back into those memories as storytellers and make the needed changes. But the process of writing the story, of converting the real events into something that pleases on the page, changes the memories that were interesting enough to write about in the first place. I can’t remember now how many fish I caught that day in the Sacramento Delta, because the story I wrote about it has made that decision for me. Writing autobiographical fiction has the somewhat maddening quality of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: the more I try to observe memories for the purpose of creating fiction, the more I change them.
But in any case it’s not good enough for a story to be true; it has to feel true to human experience and to the storytelling instinct that makes humans what we are. Another of my stories, “Belongings,” began as a totally fictitious story, at least in terms of characters and events. The only facts I used were the closing of a hobby shop I used to visit with my dad, and the kidnapping of a girl in the same suburb twenty years earlier. The rest was just my imagination. The funny thing was, as I wrote the story, I filled in blanks with things that really were a part of my experience, without even realizing it. The protagonist’s home, with its waist-high weeds and harvest gold paint, was the house I lived in as a teenager. Building model cars was the hobby I used to share with my father many years ago. And the kidnapping was really just a recent personal tragedy transfigured into another kind of loss. It’s a story about anger and powerlessness, and looking for answers when it’s best to leave things as they are. But I could not have known this without revising the story a time or two and seeing my own life recombined into something new, something more true than a strict reportage of facts. Which is what any writer of fiction is trying to create in the first place.