Adventures in Memory: On Searching for Truth by Writing Fiction
Boo Trundle Considers the Lessons of Memoir in Novel Writing
As a fiction writer, I’ve always felt compelled, memoir style, to pore over my life’s timeline. But in a novel, I can erase, revise, smash, crash, reconstruct, and transfigure that squiggly narrative. A novel has no obligation to mirror or represent anything familiar, recognizable, or real. And one of the main rules of play is that it doesn’t have to be true. Does this mean it can’t be?
In 2015, I registered for a five-day program in fiction at a writer’s conference. But then I heard that the memoir workshop was strictly generative, writing instead of reading each other’s work. I wasn’t in the mood to read or be read. But before I switched, I hesitated. Would the memoirists expect me to tell the truth? I’m suspicious of the truth and writers who claim to have speared it. Stories about our own lives are slippery fish.
I made the jump, and the instructor led us through a rotation of playful writing prompts and revision exercises. Timed bursts of stream-of-consciousness writing, meditation breaks, sharing and swapping passages with a partner (GOD NO), cutting up our manuscripts, then gluing them back together in a jumble. For me, these adventures in memory, chaos, and confession were the creative equivalent of medieval medicine: cupping, the applying of leeches, the letting of blood. I loved it.I’m suspicious of the truth and writers who claim to have speared it. Stories about our own lives are slippery fish.
We drew maps of settings we remembered, or almost remembered, from our past. I sketched the floorplan of the master bathroom in my childhood home. It was an architecturally dysfunctional maze that connected my mother’s dressing room to my parents’ shared tub and shower, then to my dad and brother’s toilet and sink vanity, and the drawer where my father kept his pistol, finally opening onto my brother’s bedroom. I also drew a map of a submarine, which served as an eerie visual cousin to the warren of toilets and sinks just described. The submarine imagery grew from this map into the controlling metaphor of my debut novel, The Daughter Ship. The U-boat shows up on the first page.
In the workshop, we searched and shared fragments of texts from online science papers with the intention of weaving them into our life stories. Since everyone in the workshop was using the internet, and we all apparently shared the same spiritual emptiness, most people tossed in clippings about the black hole. It wasn’t a big news cycle, at the time, for black holes. We were just hitting the print button on a feeling with a vast riddle attached. I stuck with mechanical science and grabbed a trouble-shooting guide for the combustion engine. My dad is obsessed with U-boats, or really anything related to World War Two. I started to explore the relationship between diesel fuel (for use on the surface) and the batteries (used for a dive.) From that moment on, I was off and running with the thrilling high of misinterpreted science.
My real-life father has a deep interest in U-boats. Katherine, the main character of The Daughter Ship, has a dad just like him. Her father could list the U-boat attacks in the Atlantic Ocean if you were foolish enough to ask. Katherine and I share more than that: we both grew up in Virginia Beach, for example, and we both have two kids, a boy and a girl. My fiction runs extremely close, on the surface, to the events and characters in my actual life. If that memoir workshop had included group critique, I might have been discovered, and forced into a genre-conversion camp. But we weren’t discussing our work. We were just doing it.
When the events of The Daughter Ship get rolling, Katherine, in her forties, knows something terrible happened to her when she was a kid. She is a survivor of something dire. But she doesn’t know exactly what. Like the P.I. in a hard-boiled detective novel, she’s reluctant and world weary. After a while, she agrees to work the case, but only because she can’t afford to refuse it.
Again, Katherine and I are alike. In my twenties, I seized on the idea of approaching my memory of my family upbringing and childhood experiences as if I were a private investigator. I had a few data points to start with: my own memories, some incriminating evidence my divorced parents had dropped about each other, and the state that I was in, best described as dissociative disarray. I wanted to take responsibility for my life. But I didn’t have direct knowledge of or access to the unconscious forces that dictated my feelings and thoughts, and therefore my actions.
I conducted (sometimes covertly) interviews, studied journal entries, and pored over archival documents: letters and scrapbooks, photos, report cards. All from my private collection. At the same time, I had to keep living and moving forward into adulthood. Along the way I was introduced to a prayer, which I still use often. It’s called “The Set-Aside prayer.” Assume it goes up to any entity that can listen in on a prayer-line: Krishna, a tree, Jesus, Kuan Yin, you name it.The assumption here is that, humbly, I don’t know squat. I write to find out. Writing is seeking as much as it as an act of documentation.
“Dear (You Name It), please help me set aside everything I think I know about you (whoever you are), everything I think I know about myself, everything I think I know about others, and everything I think I know about my own life so I may have an open mind and a new experience with all these things. Please help me see the truth.”
The assumption here is that, humbly, I don’t know squat. I write to find out. Writing is seeking as much as it as an act of documentation. And no matter what it pretends, it’s also an act of imagination. We’re warned against inventing false memories or embellishing and bending the true ones. Memories that accuse? They especially require proof. And if there’s no evidence, they’d better be diplomatic. How can a memory be diplomatic? By apologizing for itself and making polite excuses as it elbows its way through the darkness.
When I was working on The Daughter Ship, I researched Charles Darwin’s obsessive, enduring work on barnacles. From there I moved onto The Origin of Species, which, while radical for its time, is remarkably gentle. Darwin softens his propositions in order to soothe the readers who (he knew) would hate what he was saying. He expected his readers to declare his ideas untrue.
Just stay open to the fact that you might not know everything, his tone suggests. He assaults the page with sacrilege, then adds a qualifier like: “No doubt it’s a surprising fact” or “Further we must suppose.” Be easy with your idea of what’s true, he implies. And I won’t push mine too hard. (But I’m right.)
We all think we’re right, all the time, don’t we? It’s a survival mechanism. We’re sure we remember correctly, especially when we’re recalling details about our own lives. We have a penchant for un-knowing the ugly stuff. I’ve seen this described in history books as focusing on “one piece of the picture.” Under pressure, we break reality down into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. And then we lose a bunch of them under the sofa.
There’s a brilliant diplomacy at work in The Origin of Species. Darwin appears, at least rhetorically, to be making guesses. And he seems content to be wrong. In the memoir workshop, where I thought I would be slapped into a truth stockade, I found permission to do the same. Just take a stab at the past. After all, I have the ultimate diplomatic immunity: this is fiction. As such, I can lie and invent and confuse and distort until I land upon the jackpot: a story of a woman who heals.
Putting words about the past on the page doesn’t change what happened, so maybe it’s as pointless as solving a murder when the victim is already dead. Still, we have the right to poke around in the file of overlooked clues. To blow the lid off a cold case. To explode a trench of family lore by lobbing in a taxonomy of trees or a description of a snake spine.
I was looking for the truth of my life, and I found it through re-invention. I pumped it up and plumped it out and set it inside a rusty submarine. Then I placed it in the hands of a fictional character named Katherine and told her to run. She took me to her story and led me to a wild, surprising, emotional truth. Maybe I needed to find that truth. Or, on the other hand, maybe it needed to find me.
The Daughter Ship by Boo Trundle is available now via Pantheon.