Truth is Not Autobiography

Image by Phil Gyford

Making Things Up

Some years ago, an American novelist gave me a piece of advice: Always pick a narrator that is like you and not like you so you have room to invent. Her advice was invaluable. And now that I am revising a novel set in my hometown, Midland, Ontario, I am even more struck by the wisdom in her words. Why? Looking back over my revisions for The Western Light, I see that I was more intent on reproducing certain things that happened to me. Not because those things were what the story needed (always the first rule of thumb in fiction) but because they happened to me and I wanted them to be literally true on the page.

Mouse Bradford, my narrator in The Western Light has a neglectful country doctor father. And I too, was a child of a country doctor in the fifties. So my first drafts for this book had “a poor me” quality because I felt neglected by my father as a girl. After all, how does a doctor spend time with his family if there is no medicare and doctors had to work around the clock? And how does a child find a space for their feelings about their father, who, like many doctors in small towns, was a revered figure? It was a problem. A problem that got me writing a novel. And that’s good because writing novels is my business.

As I’ve written my way through these drafts, something has shifted. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, for one. For another, I’ve remembered that my character Mouse is not me. She has some experiences in common with me, and certain patterns of thinking, but she is a different person than the author, me, who created her on the page. That’s really no surprise because novels distill and dramatize.

Memoirs distill and dramatize too, but the basic facts in a memoir need to be true. The author of a memoir is held accountable in a way that novelists aren’t. Lucky us. Lucky me for having so much creative freedom. I really didn’t need to work so hard at reproducing my childhood. Yes, I want the atmosphere and setting in the novel to have an authentic 1950’s feel. So I got in touch with my hometown’s facebook page and our group has been talking over all sorts of things about Midland, Ontario in the fifties. Things like where the old Georgian Hotel used to be on main street. And how did taxi drivers run a bootlegging business on the side. I’ve also heard wonderful new stories about my father that I am grateful for knowing. My novel will be richer as a result of these fb conversations and I am grateful there too.

Geographical and biographical facts help create the setting in a more or less realistic novel. But fictional characters are an invention even if you write in the first person. Henry Miller who wrote in the first person was not quite the same person as his brazen, bohemian narrator. And Mouse Bradford is not me either.

This is what really happened, we tell ourselves. So this is how it must be on the page. Not so. Truth is not autobiography. And staying true to what happened is the best way to take a story down the wrong road.


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