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Michelle's Musings

When is Truth not Truth?

In a recent post, I mentioned I was finalizing an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress for submission to my revision writers class. While our focus at the time was creative nonfiction, our instructor commented on the current trend toward fictionalizing memoir and the efforts underway to reverse the trend. He asserted that whenever a fictional component is introduced, such as in the reconstruction of dialogue that took place years or even decades earlier, the memoir work should be deemed fiction. This statement threw me for a loop.


According to Roy Peter Clark's essay "How Truthful are Memoirs?" writers should not use "invented dialogue…. Any words in quotation marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations—especially from the distant past—should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation such as indented dashes."


The use of indented dashes –like this- for reported speech (vs. direct speech) aims to "relieve the burden of exactness," according to my instructor who also advised that the use of fictitious names for fear of retribution is unwarranted if the writer wishes to stay true to the genre of nonfiction. He suggested using an initial or a description of the person's natural status (e.g. "the short woman") or their role (e.g. "the physician") instead in those cases where a character's real name can or should not be used. My inclination had been to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the work to notify the reader of my use of made-up names and to convey transparency as to my standards and narrative methods. However, inaccurate dialogue, the class was told, holds greater potential for threats of lawsuits against the author than does the use of a real name.


Just when I was at the height of confusion, our class instructor introduced the concept of autofiction, short for autobiographical fiction. Defined as a work of truth that combines elements of autobiography with fiction in which the author is the main character, the writer recreates the world according to their experiences without altering or falsifying the facts. Thus, the story often reads as a first-person account of the author's life.


Curious to get additional feedback on the use of recalled information, I polled members of a writing association to which I belong to determine if others were under the same impression as I about writing memoir, specifically with regard to the use of quotation marks for dialogue when the author's recall is not exact but represents a best approximation and conveys the factual essence of what the quoted individual previously said. Most respondents agreed: As long as the author is writing their truth as they remember it, the work could be deemed memoir.


Hardly anyone has a photographic memory. Dialogue, backstory, and narration from events that happened decades earlier are often a bit fuzzy in their recollection. I still find the distinctions between memoir and autofiction somewhat ambiguous. For next month's post, I'll delve deeper into this subject. Stay tuned!

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Time and Effort

Giving away one's writing without monetary compensation has been the subject of debate for years. I've written for free to build my portfolio of publications, but this last go-around, I decided that my time and effort were worth more.


In the last 12 months or so, I've developed a decent relationship with the submissions editor of a local newspaper in which a few of my opinion pieces appeared. Earlier this year, I submitted another piece for consideration, which the editor deemed "strong" work. However, the political season was upon us, and publication of that work would be put off until May. Indeed, during the third week of May, I received a follow-up email from the editor who invited me to update my submission since considerable time had elapsed. The plan was to publish it before California's June 7 primary election.


I updated a couple of national stories cited in my 740-word essay then resubmitted. The editor asked me to remain on standby in case additional changes were needed, which has been the protocol for past submissions. However, four days before the primary election, she informed me that a backlog of other submissions precluded publication of mine. In addition, she requested that future pieces on national issues better reflect the local community, and she suggested that I write a piece about the upcoming Juneteenth holiday.


My first thought was, Why didn't she mention this deficiency when I was asked to update my work? During the three months that it sat, I could have easily made that change if the need had been identified. Moreover, my earlier submissions on national topics had not been subject to this directive. I'm guessing that the backlog of submissions was not the main issue and that the editor felt a tinge of guilt about not recognizing the need for further revision of my work, which someone else apparently deemed necessary. So she threw me a bone by inviting me to submit on a different topic.


I realize writers are at the mercy of publishing industry whims; however, I believe a promise of publication for an imminent date should not be made without the identification or mention of deficiencies that, if not corrected, would quash such publication. While I appreciate the significance of being published, I declined to put other projects on hold for what felt like a token request to satisfy the paper's last-minute editorial needs. Call me naïve, but it was time to stand up for the value of my work.

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Dare to Share

This time of year must be writing contest season. I've received a ton of notices about submission opportunities in just about every genre from poetry to memoir, short story to creative non-fiction, novel excerpt to literary journal piece. The word count requirements are just as varied.


It feels good to be at a point in my writing where I'm confident enough to submit material for judging. Yet as I strive to meet deadlines, I realize that most, if not all, responses to my submissions will be rejections. But my efforts are not wasted, as there is always room for learning. As needed, I refer to notes from classes or conferences I've attended and review salient advice for the revision process. I proceed accordingly, sharpening my revision and editing skills with each pass. Some contests even inspire me to create new work. Social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic has also provided more opportunity for me to hone my skills with fewer distractions. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I look forward to a return of all those external sources of diversion!


Spring has arrived, however, and so has the season of showcasing one's talent. Not only am I proceeding full steam ahead with my craft, I also may have discovered a flair for photography. I seem to have an eye for photographic composition and plan to submit one or two images for competition.


As my vegetable and flower gardens flourish, birds awaken, and temperatures rise, so, too, does my creative energy. I hope yours is also roused and that you dare to share your work with others!

Timing is Everything

I recently started another revision of my novel, Hide and Seek, a magical realism story about a 12-year-old girl with a special gift that she must properly embrace if she is to help her deceased brother cross over to "the other side." Though the intended audience is adults, I have attempted to write it from the perspective of a 12-year-old narrator. I've been advised by experts in the publishing industry that such an endeavor would be hard to pull off. Indeed, it's been difficult to find other stories written this way. The few that I did find tend to take liberty with the child's capacity for an advanced vocabulary, which did not bother me so much. However, I recognized the same in my own work and had made several notations about correcting the language in a future revision—admittedly, a daunting task.


Well, this go-around, after being satisfied that I'd composed the storyline I wanted, I began another revision. At the second chapter in, something "clicked," and I realized that the mature vocabulary of an adult gives me more freedom of voice. So, I changed the narrator to that of a young adult looking back.


The timing of this epiphany was perfect, as I'd contemplated submitting the first 15 pages of my novel to a couple of fellowship-type programs designed to guide writers through a professional revision process. I immediately went back to my opening chapter and made appropriate changes. My deadlines are in a couple of days, so I've been devoting most of my writing time to the novel revision.


As the saying goes, "Timing is everything."