I Am Not Frank - The Narrative 'I'

A few years ago I read "Alive, She Cried" at a literary conference I often attend, and afterwards a woman I've known for twenty years, an English professor, came up to me and said, "I'm glad you explained it wasn't autobiographical!" I studied her face for any sign that she was joking. She wasn't. On the one hand, I was taken aback that anyone could believe that I identified with the sick creature whose voice is the narrative line of that story. On the other, I was struck yet again by how pervasive it is, with non-writers, this inability to grasp the many relationships of author to character.
Because most of my readers who give me feedback are friends, people who know me and my history, I see this problem more vividly than one might expect. For example, a few years ago I was involved with a woman who suddenly found me disgusting because after reading my novel, Loving Women, she "realized" that I had frequented whorehouses. I hadn't. I haven't. I don't plan to. The brothel scenes are invention, with details borrowed from a PBS documentary about the Mustang Ranch!
Similarly, I spent about five years writing about a woman I had fallen in love quite by accident, beginning a few years after she was gone from my life. At first I used her unconsciously, unaware of the significance of the ghost that was huanting my fiction. By the time she came back, a miracle, after being gone for eight years, I had used her to create Tirzah in "Horse Latitudes," Patty in "Still Life with Python," Terry in "Girls Who Spit," Ruth in "Peaches" (a story which eventually became the first third of the novel Loving Women), Teresa in "Bride Price" (the rest of Loving Women), and Maureen in Point Lobos.
When she came back, before we were together, I wrote a story both for and to her, Past Tense. It made her cry. She had begun giving me her painful fantasies again, stories that were obviously about us and impossible, given her husband, my wife, her child. She thought I wrote it to teach her a lesson. I told her I wrote it because it was truth buried in fiction. In another few months, we were together, then divorced from our respective mates, and then, with the suddenness of a train wreck, she was gone.
In the meantime, in those eighteen months that defined the rest of my life, I wrote stories for her rather than about her. It was for her that I wrote "Host," though because of the magic danger of the story, I made both characters into other people: a professor friend whose wife was twenty years younger, a graduate student I remembered. For her "Duck Hunting," but with a pair of our friends as the models. Their conflict, like that of Clo and Road, was so much harder to resolve than ours. But she didn't think so. "So they get a divorce?" she said after reading it. It was the beginning of summer; the season ended with her departure.
During that time, I learned the meaning of Robinson Jeffers' great quip, "I can write lies in prose." I wrote poetry for her, desperate, naked poems about our relationship and what it meant, like "Monody in Ice." The fiction was always more complicated than that, with layers of truth and invention like the marbling of a cake.
And then she was gone. And once again, I wrote about her: She became Gwendolynn in "No More Gwendolynn"; though the man in the story is "me," I never had a casual relationship with a student. She "is" Madeleine (the name I eventually christened her memory with) in "Ceremony," told by a man much more damaged, I think, than I. She is one of the two women in "Short Stories." And then, finally, Eleanor in "Like a Camera" and the woman called "Anna" (and "Matilda") in "Windigo Heart."
My son had a tough time with "Like a Camera" because he knew the narrator was, in some sense, me, and when the narrator turned out to be "such a shit", he was confused. But that is the narrative 'I' doing it's strange transformations. I am not Paul Edwardson, any more than I am Thomas Phelan. But to make them live, I borrow from myself. To understand myself, I examine bits of myself grafted here and there, to this character or that. Good fiction is not "about things"; it is things. There is a great deal of bad writing (Thomas Wolfe comes to mind) in which the point is to celebrate what an extraordinary human being the writer is. Autobiographies, after all, demand a certain humility which we can chuck if we pretend we are exalting someone else.
I learned my narrative ethics from a man of uncompromising principles, Vardis Fisher, a novelist whose "autobiographical" fictions are extraordinary confessions of a flawed human being. Ruth's weaknesses are not Madeleine's, any more than Maureen's and Teresa's strengths are hers. Fiction lies; every story invents lies to embellish the truth of its sources. A good character is not a real person made up in costume. A good character has her own life. Child or cousin of her human source, she is her self, or she is not worth reading. That, after all, is the point of "Like a Camera," just as being careful what lies we tell in prose is the lesson of "Past Tense."
The title, by the way? That deserves a second essay, if you are interested.

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