What to do with the interesting or vexing stories from our lives, the people who fascinate us, the situations that obsesses us? Do we spin them into fictions or try to capture them in nonfiction, in memoirs, essays, or—in what seems to be a trend—some hybrid form?
“Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,” Rachel Cusk told the Guardian in an interview last August. She was discussing how she came to write Outline, her new autobiographical novel that, rather than focusing on her life as her memoirs do or created characters and plots, “annihilates perspective.”
I found the Guardian article by reading “Embarrassed by Fiction,” a New Yorker essay by Elaine Blair about Cusk, her new book, and autobiographic novels in general. “Today, writers who are trying to expand the possibilities of the novel talk about incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay, of hewing closer to the author’s subjective experience, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions,” Blair writes.
It made me think of this week’s Sunday Rumpus essay and the way Mathew Daddona forwent using family photos as prompts for fictional narratives because he felt the results were less interesting than the real stories of his family, even as he contemplates that the remembered past is also imagined.
One thing the remembered past certainly is not is fact. We’re overconfident in our own recollections. Here’s Why Memory Fails.
But I don’t think these failures mean memory must be discarded. I like the idea of memory (and the photos that can form and prompt it) as a medium, a tool. It can help us render, imagine, and create something new that’s also true, that spills out from a sealed fictional world.