Last night Francine Prose came to town and read an as of yet unpublished short story. She swears that the Holocaust isn't the only thing that she writes about but this story was set in 1930s Germany. In the two novellas in Guided Tours of Hell one features a concentration camp survivor and the other a Jewish American male who harbors fantasies of living in WWII Paris and doing great deeds for La Resistance.
I still think she's a lovely writer. She does the writerly things I enjoy -- such as letting characters rethink things with similes -- without being overly corny.
In the Q&A session she got rather adamant about not needing to think about form. The question was how do you know what form to put a piece into: shorty story, novel, non-fiction, etc. Ms. Prose doesn't really work in poetry [insert pun about the appropriateness of this given her last name] so she didn't address that at all, but was forceful -- even cut the woman off -- in saying that it is what it is! You either made it up or you didn't! There's no decision; it just is!
At the time I was left scratching my head at this response. But I may or may not have found the gap in communication between the two women.
Prose cited her book on Caravaggio as an example. It's not a novel because it's real; he was real. If I was more familiar with Prose's non-fiction I could tell you if all of it is factual, historical accounts, but given her comment I think it is. I think the woman asking the question in the audience heard non-fiction and thought creative non-fiction. Not histories but personal experiences.
What we should have asked, given the fact that she'd admitted one of the characters in Guided Tours of Hell is based off of a real person (which all the WMU faculty and half the MFA candidates know because he teaching in the Prague summer program), is how she decides to take a real experience of hers and make it fiction instead of memoir.
Sadly, it took me too long to understand all these disconnects. Probably another good reason that I'm not a lawyer, or at least not a trail lawyer: I'd make all my critical realizations after the verdict was announced. I need quiet meditation and time to digest stuff.
But back to the actual question. I wish the the question had been properly phrased because it is a question I struggle with. Up until New Years I thought of every experience I had, every person I met, every story I heard as fodder for my fiction. Now I'm looking at notes toward stories that I've written down to try and twist my life into fictional stories with other characters and I wonder why am I letting characters live my life for me?
No, actually I'm not wondering that. But it sounded poetic so I wrote it down.
What I'm wondering is does it make a better story when I add to it, when I purposefully mold twists and turns into it, or does it make a better story just as it is when it is my memories without any fictional muddying?
I don't have any good answers. If someone asked me this question I'd tell them to take it case by case. The only time I can't follow my own advice is when it comes to family-story.
There are thousands of little anecdotes that my family tells and retells -- your family probably has them too unless you were all raised to not be talkative -- I'll use different terms when I discuss these anecdotes but primarily I call them family-story or table-story. They are that which my family tells when together, usually at my grandmother's kitchen table. These stories seem to have none of the things that makes them good fiction: there's no character arc, the cast of characters is huge, you can't "get into" anyone's mind, and there's often not a point other than it being funny or nostalgic. Despite all this family-story draws me like a lodestone. I want to write it as non-fiction but I can't make the pieces add up to anything worthwhile, and so I have repeatedly attached these true family-stories to fictional characters in fictional scenarios. The fiction gives them a character arc, it gives them lovely neurotic tendencies and other things which are very helpful in telling a story and the family-story gives them life and breath, a history to root themselves in. I hate using family-story in fiction. It feels like a misuse of rich earth. But right now I don't have a way to use it properly.
I came back home and worked on fiction tonight, characters who could never ever be myself are starting to appeal to me in fiction. (Perhaps because I want to turn characters who are me into me?) And accidentally started reading an article in Poets&Writers on what differentiates memoir from personal essay from literary journalism from journalism. The article is written by an angry journalist-type, but once you remove his skeptical slant from the piece there is quite a bit of information lurking underneath about creative non-fiction as a genre with many forms. Article: "Green-Haired Gumshoes or Hidebound Hacks?" by Michael McGregor.