SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? Memoir and the Short Story

By Nancy Means Wright

     I recently published a short story called “Acts of Balance” in the Level Best Books anthology Blood Moon, and was invited to talk about it on a short fiction panel.  In my tale, a young girl, strongly influenced by an older sister, makes a fateful decision. The opening line had come to me during a stifling, insomniac night: “The summer I decided to kill my brother was an unbearably hot one.”  (Yes, weather often plays a role in one’s traumatic plans.) Our moderator, mystery author Leslie Wheeler, noted that the story had a memoir edge to it, and asked how much of it stemmed from my own experience.

     A good deal, I had to admit. I had earlier written a memoir called Make Your Own Change in which, among other things, I described my kids’ childhood and their somewhat unorthodox coming of age. The title was both literal and metaphorical. My husband and I had opted for a midlife career change after years of teaching in a boys’ school. I wanted more time to write, and thought I might gain it by running a craft shop in our barn. I kept it open daily, including Sundays when we took off as a family for Lake Dunmore, leaving a note saying “PAY IN THIS BOX. MAKE YOUR OWN CHANGE. And most people did, except for the night we came home to find an expensive missing lamp and no check or cash in the change box to cover it.  

     In my memoir I smoothed over the stolen lamp and the violation I felt, along with the fact that my marriage ties were beginning to fray. After all, our kids were still young and I wanted my memoir to be upbeat. Although I did describe the summer my brother-in-law was in a plane crash and we brought three of his kids to join our Vermont family of six so his wife could be with him in the hospital where he lay paralyzed.

     During that crisis I was in summer school at nearby Middlebury College working towards an MA in French. I’d taken a pledge to speak French only, but had to break it evenings or I knew the kids would never obey me. To help out with noon meals, my husband made pea soup with ham and onions in a 5-gallon vat and served it in a reconstituted chamber pot. The kids turned green to look at it, but it filled their bellies. Meanwhile, they started an apple army with green apples as weapons, and then a spy club, which required hopeful members to walk a narrow barn rafter over rusted farm machinery. The army was run by my twelve-year-old son who declared himself Chief, and the army for “guys only.”

     This did not go over well with his younger sisters and girl cousins. 

     I related this and other happenings as accurately as I rememebered, but with a little exaggeration that I called “fictional technique.” But when the memoir was published, my kids called it “pure fiction.” My son claimed he’d never wholly excluded the girls, who were “too scared to walk the beam.” My daughters cried the opposite. along with other instances of pure tyranny. My husband said that everyone was exaggerating–that he’d run a “tight ship” while I was gone, and it was “all good fun.” No one agreed on what really happened. 

     I now believe that my fictional short story is truer than my memoir. I’d made up the part about my daughter trying to kill her bully brother by dropping a trapdoor on his head (the trapdoor itself was indisputable fact). But my fiction exposed some of the unsavory stuff that hid beneath the disputed facts: the boys’ sexism, the girls’ angers and anguish, the cousins’ fears for their father’s life (he lived to be a quadriplegic).

     “Memoirists don’t distort the truth,” Andre Aciman recently wrote in the NY Times, “they nudge it…shift it just enough to be able to live with it… It’s our revenge against facts that won’t go away. ”

     In Kate Atkinson’s fascinating new novel, Life After Life, the facts are negated as her heroine lives myriad lives over a period of two world wars. She dies one day, only to spring to life the next, in a new role and setting. Similarly, for each event in our lives, there are several ways it might have turned out, for better or worse. In my memoir I was relating “facts” as I “remembered” them. Yet each person in my book had his/her own version. Moreover, each telling seemed to embellish and change the story. Stranger still, my fictional tale came to be as real to me as the nonfiction account. Which / who was I to believe? My children or my own quirky memory?  Did my young daughter really try to do away with her bully brother?

     Needless to say, I haven’t let any of my offspring read the story. You know what happened when someone opened up Pandora’s Box!


18 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    A very thought-provoking commentary–as usual. Like you, I do memoir writing as well as short stories and novels. The memoir articles are somewhat fictionalized to avoid offending others. Also, readers expect them to be uplifting (Chicken Soup for instance) unless one is writing a “tell all” book and is a celebrity. But like you, I often take real incidents and people and fictionalize them. This can be much more honest because it is fiction and we’ve changed names and places. Of course, my own sons are on to this. One day my older son said to his brother: “Careful what you say in front of Mom. It might end up in one of her books.”

    • Your son’s comment, Jacquie, rings many bells. Years ago when I wrote a column for our local newspaper, people would turn away from me on the street to avoid being in print! Our children had no choice, of course. My daughter is struggling right now with a memoir she might have to turn into a novel to save embarrassment for her children.

  2. Instead of writing a memoir (who would want to read about me), I borrowed from my own experiences to write an adventure novel, Arirang. The novel is fiction. However, bits are pretty close to real. My mom read the novel and was quite upset about the young Melani’s experience as a child. Mom was sure I was telling about her and felt obliged to tell me the circumstances from her point of view. I had a great “aha” moment. Our memory does change our experiences. I think it is a memory trick so we don’t go crazy. We don’t remember everything – and can’t. Therefore, the brain is automatically sifting and smoothing out the edges of memories so they are not exact. I think my mind is in overtime smoothing some memories on one hand and dramatizing others. author of Ghost Orchid and Arirang.

    • I like your psychological insights, D.K. Well said! So in a sense we’re saved from madness and mortification by our brain. I’ve seen myself, with both pleasure and pain, in my daughter’s novels, and am perhaps somewhat inured by now. Yet still a part of me suffers. Was I really like that? Yet I’d give my life for her right to show the world a childhood as she saw it.

    • Thanks for your great responses, D.K. and Jacquie! I commented on both. Nancy

  3. Such honest sharing helps us all, Nancy — and inspires my next PP blog. Thanks.

  4. Wonderful stuff–I can see that trapdoor now. But how in heaven’s name do you plan to keep those kids from reading your story?

    As for who remembers the truth, I was called on the carpet recently about a time when I kept our teenager from going to hear a sax-playing hero of his on a school night, because, I said, there would be another time. Well, there wasn’t. Rahsan Roland Kirk died the very next morning. That part is undisputed, and I never lived it down. The part our now middle-aged son reminded me of recently was that I wasn’t being a good mother about school nights. Instead, he says, and I’m pretty sure he’s right, I told him he’d just had one big treat not long before and would have to be willing to reimburse me for the ticket to this one.

    • Great story, Sara! Except for that poor sax player. Fate has a way of making us feel guilty about denying things to our kids. Yet here you had conflicting stories about what happened. The truth may even lie somewhere else! As for my offspring reading this story, well. I didn’t tell them about the story being published in Level Best Books. So most likely they won’t see a copy. I hope.

  5. Nancy, I’m fascinated to get more of the story that you told part of at our panel. In fictionalizing what happened, I think you probably got at the emotional core beneath the surface events and arrived at a certain truth–maybe not the same truth as the others involved in the experience–but that’s what often happens in families. Thanks for sharing!

    • And thank you so much, Lesley, for moderating our panel, and for adding a note here on our PP blog. And for making me think more deeply about the thin line between memoir and ficton.

  6. Nancy, I’ve never written memoir, but, like you, I’ve used life experiences in fiction. I, too, have had the feeling that the fiction is more true than my memory of the actual events. I think Leslie nailed it when she said that in fiction we arrive at the true emotional core of the experience we’re relating.

    • Yes, Anita, Leslie said it beautifully, It’s not always easy, of course, to express that emotional core. All too often words fail me. But I keep trying, and that’s all one can do. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. And one day you might want to try a memoir. With fictional techniques, perhaps!

  7. Nancy, you write the most fascinating posts which all seem to stem back to your fascinating life. I know some of the realistic aspects of my own life would never be believed if I tried to include them in my novels. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Thanks so much, Cindy, for taking a few precious moments out of your wild life. And I’d love to read your memoir, with or without any fiction. It’s your duty to your fans to write down those realistic mad aspects of your life!

  8. Absorbing analysis, as usual, Nancy. I agree with Leslie. I’m experimenting with presenting my parents’ love story as a sort of historical fiction,using their real names, now that they’re both long gone.. It will enable me to compress events, highlight the emotional core and tell the story (as opposed to my father’s funny stories in Dad’s War with the United States Marines), in her own voice. This treatment, one agent told me, turns it into emotionally authentic women’s fiction.I can get away withtelling the unflinching real story because, as Voltaire once said, “To the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe the truth.”

    • I love that Voltaire quote, Peter! And it’s absolutely valid. Although the dead won’t know the truth, alas–just the living friends and relatives will. And as they say, a memorial service is for the living survivors, not the dead. .. A lovely idea to fictionalize your parents’ love story! Having read your Dad’s War, I can imagine how moving a story it will be.

  9. […] SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? Memoir and the Short Story […]

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