Updated: Nov 28, 2019
“I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.” Mary Karr, in The Art of Memoir.
I always thought of myself as a fiction writer. I've written a couple of novels and a few short stories. Then, at the beginning of this year I started to work on a memoir.
Readers want to know if my novel – a psychological thriller - is based on my own experience. Oddly, they mean the sex, not the murders. With the memoir, they ask: “Surely that didn't happen?" They're not explicitly doubting me, so much as seeking more detail, more reality.
I was taken aback at first, but the more I've thought about it, the more I like it, especially in this world of alt-facts we live in, this playground for liars.
Fiction can tell some kinds of truth more convincingly. Stories can be entertaining and satisfying – they can make a point without lecturing. I certainly couldn't write a hundred thousand words unless I had something to say, and I pick and choose bits of reality to lend authenticity to the products of my imagination. I can exaggerate or turn reality upside down and inside out, without feeling the slightest guilt.
When I'm writing memoir, it's because I want to create an authentic record of something which happened – usually about a person or event that affected me deeply.
‘Too Much Tea’, my story for the Stories About Penises anthology, is about one of those moments.
When a friend tagged me on Facebook, and jokingly suggested that she knew I would have a story about a penis, she was right.
It happened so long ago that the people I wrote about are long gone. This is a story that only I can tell.
I saw how easily a small abuse of power – that of a landlady over a tenant – could ride roughshod over a person's life. I knew it was wrong, but at twenty-two, I lacked the courage to stand up for Mr Hatchard, and anyway, I needed the money.
I have stayed true to what I remember. The dialogue is imagined – but nothing is twisted or exaggerated. I've not filled in the gaps in my knowledge with guesswork.
Still, ‘Too Much Tea’ does read like fiction. It has the form of a story – I've chosen the beginning and the ending. The scenes I selected tell a particular story, in a particular way. It's not just a meander through my memories of that time.
Both fiction and memoir are shaped by a single vision. They are both, however imperfectly, concerned with things that matter to the writer, and that the writer hopes will matter to other people.
Yet there is a world of difference to this writer. With fiction my only responsibility is to myself and my own truth. With memoir I have a responsibility to other people as well, and to tell my story without distorting theirs.
Truth is a slippery concept at best, but we can still make our goal never to make up events out of whole cloth, or deliberately deceive. If I condense time, simplify a story, perhaps alter names and locations – that is about courtesy to the people I am writing about, and to the readers. It's not an escape from honesty and authenticity.
I wrote ‘Too Much Tea’ for Mr Hatchard. However late, it's a kind of apology, and an acknowledgement of a difficult lesson I learned at his expense. When writing memoir we're often writing for people who are never going to read it, but we write anyway – partly for ourselves and partly in the hope that our experience will have some meaning for others.
'Too Much Tea' will be published in our Stories About Penises anthology, release date 28 November 2019. Orders are now available.