It's All Fiction

I had the good fortune to sit on a panel a few weeks ago with the memoirist Claire Dederer who told the story of meeting with her editor over drinks one evening when she was fully in the throes of book anxiety. Claire was worried she wouldn’t be able to flesh out her memoir. Many of her memories were too vague to make compelling narrative, and she knew that to include them she would have engage in a little invention. Was this okay? Was she breaking some rules? The editor, who had worked on numerous celebrated memoirs in her long career, put down her drink and leaned across the table. “It’s all fiction.”

The more I write about my own past, the more I understand just how correct the editor was. All of my past as I have come to know it is a fiction, by which I mean not the truth. I am not a liar, however, I am simply incapable of remembering the truth. The truth would be every single thing that was done and said and, most importantly, thought at a given moment in the entire universe. Oh, and also every single that was done and said and thought before that given moment because, as every writer well knows, the present grows ineluctably out of the past.

What I remember is an interpretation of a necessarily narrow slice of reality, or to put it another way, a story. Yet these stories I tell about the past are useful to me in precisely the same way films and novels are useful to me: they frame reality to give it meaning. It is not my job to know everything. My job is to live meaningfully within what I can know. That is enough.

And that meaning is lived through what I feel. A story’s destination is always a feeling – the feeling of love or of despair, of peace or of conflict. The author chooses the destination just as he chooses every character and scene and word. In the same way, I choose my own past, this world of my own invention, to give meaning to my life as I am actually living it.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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