Stories as Life, Life as Stories

In the past year or so, my work and my interests have been pushed heavily toward personal storytelling.  Call it what you want–narrative, creative nonfiction, memoir–I’ve been all about it.  Last year, my first real publication came thanks to Texas State University’s Front Porch Journal with a short piece I wrote entitled “The Language of Cancer“, and while the piece wasn’t about my own experience, it was a breakaway from the traditional fictional short stories I had been writing.  Since then, I was able to attend an awesome workshop at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in Narrative Nonfiction with Bill Loizeaux, and I’ve had a second, more personal nonfiction piece published again by Front Porch called “Elastic“.  Finally, I found out that the Harvard Educational Review is going to publish an essay I wrote on my experience as an academically gifted high school student.

And while I’m still writing fiction, I’m becoming more and more enamored with the romanticism of putting a personal story out there for an audience.  There’s the obvious example of the power of This American Life, but I’m excited for more, like the very cool Radio Ambulante which is providing a similar Latino-centric voice.  There’s the slew of really, really good memoirs and combination memoir/biography+contemplations that have popped up in the past few years.  I’m thinking here of some more clasically structured memoirs like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal, and Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, but also books that have nudged the boundaries of the genre, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother, and David Lipsky’s Although You End Up Becoming Yourself (also see his older work Absolutely American for a fantastic bit of storytelling+investigative journalism) (also, this hybridity deserves more, later).  And finally, there’s the inherent storytelling aspect to our increasing reliance on social-based news sources and media.  Is reality television an extension of this?

Which is to say that I am all about some creative nonfiction right now.  I’m also lucky enough to be in a graduate class on narrative research, and I’ve used that class to springboard into further work on the stories I want to tell, specifically more on gifted education.

One of the topics that frequently comes up in class discussion is the difference between a fictional and a nonfictional narrative.  I don’t have a good answer for that, yet.  On one hand, as a reader, I feel like knowing whether a story is true or not should not influence my enjoyment of it.  On the other hand, I feel drawn toward these stories that are labeled as true, which I hope is not just because of that label, but because of some combination of content and format that elicits an innate resonance in me….  Or maybe it’s just really good marketing.  From a writerly point of view, though, I think the nonfiction approach invites you to use outside content in a way that fiction doesn’t necessarily do–the stories of others, research, things the reader can follow up on (thinking of Eating Animals a lot here, but others as well).  Not that fiction can’t supply these things as well, but the cohesion level is rarely the same.

Questions for you, reader:
Why does a “true” memoir versus a fictional memoir hold more or less value for you?  Is it a false dichotomy?
What are your favorite sources of personal storytelling?

And, finally, a bit of humor for the day after elections – Nate Silver 2.0

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2 comments

  1. lucewriter

    One thing I like about memoir (over fiction) is the tension created by the constraints of shaping experience into story. In fiction there aren’t as many constraints.

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