The truth of the story

Writing is problem solving; whether in fiction, biography or memoir, certain basic questions have to be resolved. In biography, at least, a writer leans heavily on materials gathered in research. Working with a trove of documents is constraining, but also in some ways liberating, as working a puzzle is liberating. The clues are in your files, and if you’ve done your job as a researcher, you have the tools to solve the puzzle. But when I turned to memoir — the shamelessly naked core of a writer’s necessary material — I found myself traveling as light as any writer of fiction.

I have never written fiction, and this memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is memoir true to life. Because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story. There really is no choice. A reporter of fact is in service to the facts, a eulogist to the family of the dead, but a writer serves the story without apology to competing claims. 

This is an attitude that some have characterized as ruthless: that cold detachment, that remove, that allows writers to make a commodity of the lives of others. But a writer who cannot separate herself from her characters and see them within the full spectrum of their human qualities loses everything in a haze of nostalgia and sentimentality. Bathos would do no honor to my subjects nor, most important, bring them to literary life, which is the only way they could live in the world again. 

At first I intended to write only one piece, the story of the agonizing last years of my parents’ lives, a five-year period during which I had made some notes. The original version of the story I wrote was about 150 pages long. Everything was in it, but it didn’t work. I hadn’t solved any of the problems that the story demanded. But I was lucky, and eventually a solution came to me. 

The right voice in which to tell the story came to me, and when it did, many other things fell into place. And I wound up with a story that is 10 or 12 pages long and yet contains everything I wanted to say. After that first piece, I went on to make a book of stories about my family that I called ”How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories,” without notes this time, with only treacherous memory and a few letters to guide me. 

Now you may ask: Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth? 

It is as close as it can be.

The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life — that one damn thing after another — is lost. No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it’s a package made to travel.

Everything that happened is not in my stories; how could it be? Memory is selective, storytelling insists on itself. But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen. In their essence they are true. From here

Dorothy Gallagher:

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