Once at a writer’s conference, over drinks, I was talking to several poets about scuba diving, about some things I had recently seen on a wreck dive. A few weeks later, I had a phone call from one of them. He had never been diving but wanted to write a poem about it, and asked me lots of questions. Fine, I thought, but why not use your own experience instead of mine? The chances are greater that your passion or enthusiasm for what you are writing about will be more contagious, more convincing, and register more deeply with a reader if it comes from your own life.
The impulse to write, for me, has always been to find meaning in experience, to give that experience imaginative life, and to share it with a reader. I tend to set stories and poems in places where I’ve lived—Maine, West Virginia, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia, Quebec, France, coastal North Carolina. Why bother to invent, make up stuff, if you have promising raw material at your disposal? There is nothing wrong with using your own life. The family, for example, has always been a primal source for fiction and theater. Take the work of Philip Roth or Eugene O’Neill, to name but two of hundreds. Long Day’s Journey into Night, set in my home town and arguably the best play of the 20th century, is so autobiographically close to the bone that O’Neill mandated in his will that it not be staged or published until twenty-five years after his death. Fortunately for us his executor saw things differently.
At a college reunion last month, I read a story from Allegiance and Betrayal (Syracuse University Press), published earlier this year. The story is set in a French-Canadian enclave in Maine where I went to school, where just about everyone spoke French (sadly no more). After the reading, classmates came up and told me that the off-campus store described in my story wasn’t owned by French Canadians. And nobody seemed to remember a boy with Downs syndrome who was always barefoot, in pyjamas, and spent much of his time in a junk car next to the store. These remarks pleased me because the boy, among many other things, was invented for a recognition scene toward the end of the narrative.
A cousin once told me he knew where one of my short stories came from, then proceeded to recall the bit of drama from a family cook-out I had in mind. I told him he was right. Then he said, “But it didn’t happen the way you write about it.” I told him that’s why we call it fiction. He protested. I asked what was more interesting and engaging, the way it happened, or my imagined version of events? He smiled but repeated that it didn’t happen that way. Fine, I said, how about them Red Sox.
Once, however, I took something from the family, but didn’t use enough imagination to outfit the characters with disguises, and got myself into trouble with my mother who, in a roundabout way, got hold of the journal in which the story appeared. It was my first published story. I had no intention of showing it to the family because I must have suspected some people would be hurt or offended. This was a real learning experience. I promised myself, and my mother, that it would never happen again. Now the innocent and the guilty in my fiction would be hard put to recognize themselves. I hope.
After readings, during Q & A sessions, I’m often asked how autobiographical my work is. First response is to quote Giambattista Vico, the 17th century Italian philosopher, who said that memory and imagination are the same thing. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but memory is faulty, and revises itself over time. Just compare with a friend the memory of an event you experienced together, and the two versions of that event will usually vary. My second response is that there are degrees of fictiveness, and that the percentage of autobiography to imagination varies from story to story: 30-70; 40-60; 50-50. Poems, on the other hand, remember and magnify moments that are much closer to the way things were, for me at least. But even with poems, my allegiance is to the work in progress, and not to what really happened.
Bottomline: never let truth stand in the way of a good story or poem. Or as Picasso put it: “All art is a lie that makes you see the truth.”