Editor’s Notebook: On Writing Discomfort
As we enter the season of contradiction—decked halls and joyful noise limned by dirty ice and a vicious wind—I’m thinking a lot about memory. It’s my current nonfiction project that’s making me go there; the memoir elements of the book demand an awful lot of digging around in my past. Sometimes I have to prove to myself something really did happen the way I think it did. Sometimes I can’t prove it.
I chatted with a few fellow writers this week about the challenge of writing into and through holes in memory. Very soon we were sighing over the contradiction of memoir, that compulsion to tell the truth of a personal story while being wholly unable ever to tell it full, tell it complete. Then we talked about how uncertain memory might prevent us from being fair to our characters, and by characters we mean our mothers and fathers and first loves and broken friends. It is vital that we are fair to those who betrayed us, we said, and we meant it, all the while never doubting the betrayal.
Does all good writing—good art—rest in contradiction? In our best efforts to resolve it?
I miss my short fiction, I told my friends. I miss being the kingmaker, worldbuilder, puppet-master. I don’t like knowing I might be wrong. In fiction there is no wrong. There is poor, of course. There is boring. But despite what the editor might tell you, there is no moral right and wrong in the story you conceived (and if she tells you there is, get another editor). Fiction just works or it doesn’t. I took for granted that single, simple measuring stick.
For now I try to make friends with contradiction. I say when I don’t remember. I try to balance the betrayal with the revelation. It’s December and midwinter is coming. Seems like exactly the right time to summon that still, small voice. The one that tells the truth.
Whatever kind of truth you’re telling in whatever form, stay with it. We’re not getting any younger, writer friends. Every minute counts.