On Deciding to Tell My Story in a Novel Instead of a Memoir
Brittany Ackerman on the Craft of Truth and Memory
I cry after my first nonfiction workshop in graduate school. We take a break midway through class and I tell my instructor I’m not feeling well. I get the fuck out of that room, that building, that parking lot with tall Florida palms and humid night air, peel off back to the dorm where I’m living on campus so I can break down in private. The piece I’ve been working on is called “Space Mountain,” my attempt at a lyric essay, which uses the backdrop of the Disney World ride in contrast to both my brother’s and my own drug use and experimentation. No one said anything bad about the piece. No one really said anything about the piece. Instead, it became a discussion about my brother, how fucked up he was, how no one understood why I, as the narrator, even cared anymore and why I kept trying. Why did I love him? Why didn’t I hate him? Why didn’t I leave him in Miami to rot?
The guy I’m seeing, a fiction writer also in the program, texts me and asks if I’m okay. I write back no, and I already foresee myself in his bed later when class ends. He always calls, asks if I want to come over, and I always do.
I wrote the essay while my roommate was out of town. I ordered Italian food, enough to last me the weekend with leftovers, and hunkered down at my desk. I only stopped writing for short breaks that involved riding the elevator downstairs and smoking a cigarette outside by the community pool. Each time I went outside, I saw glimmers of reality: the way the moon reflected in the chlorinated water, the mosquitos that chomped away at my thighs. It all reminded me of longing for a past love and propelled me deeper into my work each time I returned upstairs to my desk.
I had applied to the grad program as a nonfiction writer. We all took cross-genre courses and reveled in each other’s work, each other’s novice, the collective experience of producing work and showing up and being ready to listen to whatever critique came forth. And now it seems I must ask the question I’ve been avoiding: am I really ready to write about my brother, about our troubled past, childhood, Florida, all the drugs? Why am I even writing about this and not—I don’t know—anything else? Why do I feel the urgent need to tell this story?
The Fiction Writer gives me the idea for some short stories, the ones that will become the foundation of my debut novel The Brittanys years later. He also tells me I’m delusional for thinking I can ever make it as a real writer, but I sit anyway in our shared bed and write a series of short stories. I’m so sick of my memoir, so tired of re-living the pain, so I write stories about a group of girls, all named Brittany, that are loosely based on my own high school experiences. The stories are disconnected, fragmented. Girls use mind-power to find and return a lost purse; a girl waits for her mom after school in the carpool line after being felt up by a popular boy; two best friends outsmart a creepy bully; the girls ride around in a golf cart and dance on webcams and meet boys. The main character is me, but not me. She’s more fierce, outspoken. She is wilder.
The stories remain a fun side project on my computer, and I submit the memoir draft to my thesis defense. During the meeting, the idea comes up of turning the memoir project into fiction, that I might consider the freedom that fiction would allow, that where nonfiction troubled me, I might find solace and autonomy in the fiction of it. Upon graduating, my thesis chair tells me she’s certain my book will be out in the world, it’s only a matter of time. Fiction or nonfiction, this story has what it takes.
Fresh out of grad school, I’m working at Abercrombie and Fitch as a manager in training when I get an email from a prospective agent. I’m at the cash register early in the morning, before any of the other employees have clocked in yet, and I’m counting change, making sure it’s all there, that the register is even. I have a hot coffee from the Starbucks at the other end of the mall next to me, lid off so it can cool down. I stop what I’m doing, acknowledging I’ll have to re-count the entire drawer, but none of this will matter if this email tells me that an agent wants to represent me. My life will be forever changed. I can leave this store, this mall, like in the movies, fist in the air and denim jacket waving like a flag in my wake.
I read email, then read it over and over again, hoping my eyes are deceiving me, that maybe I’m reading it all wrong, that somewhere in this paragraph an offer will appear that I missed before, that the compliments of You’re clearly a talented writer will lead to something more than I will pass.
Just then, my boss walks into the store and scolds me for being on my phone. I’d almost forgotten I was at work in a store with pre-distressed jeans lining the walls and the pungent smell of cedar and teakwood infiltrating my every breath. As she walks into the stockroom, I turn back to the register and spill the coffee on the floor. I manage to clean up the mess before she comes back out to the floor, but the rest of the day there is a faint burning smell around the register. I spray extra perfume to mask it and spend the rest of my shift trying not to cry.
After the break-up, I tuck away the short stories and return to the memoir. I’m not convinced that fiction is the way to go for a story that is about my brother, about myself, about our family. I want to tell the story as it is, as it really happened. I attempt to write the memories as close to the truth as possible. One night after work, I sit with my brother on a bench outside the mall and we each hold a copy of my manuscript in our hands. “We color these memories differently,” he tells me. Where I remember anxiety and fear, he had thought I was happily carefree on the playground. Where I saw an act of rebellion, my brother expresses he had been in the midst of a manic state.I’m not convinced that fiction is the way to go for a story that is about my brother, about myself, about our family.
“You can’t trust someone who smokes Winstons,” my brother says, lighting up a Marlboro Red. He’s referring to my ex, The Fiction Writer, when he says this. He’s showing his support, his alliance. He’s telling me I’m better off, I’ll be okay. And I believe him.
I move to Los Angeles the following spring and start submitting the manuscript like crazy. I’m on my way to PA a photo-shoot when I get an email from the director of Red Hen Press, Kate Gale, asking if my manuscript is still available for publication. Less than two-years out of grad school, I sign my contract for The Perpetual Motion Machine.
The same summer I move to LA, I spend two weeks in Chamonix, France for a Writing by Writers workshop. I bring the short stories because I haven’t been writing much and I’m in need of direction.
In my one-on-one with Alan Heathcock, my group leader, he tells me loves the stories of these girls, but he feels what I’ve got isn’t a collection, but a novel. I tell him I have no idea how to write a novel and he laughs. He’s confident I’ll figure it out. I return to LA and spend the next eight months writing every day.
As I’m writing, I realize I’m having more fun writing than ever before, that looking into the past and using it to mine experiences, but then getting to sort of “fuck-you” the past and re-envision it, re-write it, re-make it into something that feels like my own—feels really good. I’m not putting myself into a fictional world; I am the fictional world. The writing and the plot revolve around a fictional me doing fictional things, but the voice, the tone, the feeling—is me.
In a final email exchange between my ex and me, he makes a sort of amends. He writes that he’s concerned about how much emphasis I’m placing on my work, that writing shouldn’t be, the most important thing. He’s “happy for me,” but in the same sentence he recounts that David Foster Wallace killed himself ten years after he had rave reviews for Infinite Jest. He also wants me to know that he’s sorry for not supporting me, for being judgmental, for not being able to see beyond himself, that he’s working on it and getting better. He ends the email with: “There’s been some sort of shift and the shift is forward.”
As I look back now, I realize I had shifted too. And my writing had shifted. I was no longer stuck in trying to get things right. I was immersed in a freedom that still aimed at telling the truth, but the truth of the feeling.
I write back and accept the sort of apology. I even make my own to him, but in my amends, I am mostly amending myself. I am sorry for how long it went on, for how I had to hide myself and my dreams, for believing someone else’s fiction.
I’m still drawn to memoir and essays and hope someday to write a collection about my parents and their lineage, to write about the cities where we lived as a family, how moving affected all of us in our own ways. Maybe it’s that in relation to telling a family history, I feel more appropriate writing nonfiction, and when I’m drumming up the chaotic and challenging days of my youth and adolescence, I’m better off fictionalizing. Maybe the important part is that I too continue to shift forward and keep writing, that I get to decide what I want to write and how.
No one else will, or can, care about your work as much as you. You get to decide the way each letter falls on the page. You get to decide when to shift forward. With each setback comes a bigger propel forward; it just takes time. We must be excited by the opportunities, by the grace of writing, by the gifts we have been given.
The Brittanys by Brittany Ackerman is available now via Vintage.