Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

January 29, 2006

Resetting Bedtimes

The good news: I took a badly needed day off yesterday. It was a bright, warm afternoon—perfect for a walk by the lake in Long Branch, dinner, and a movie. The bad news: I had to stay up all night to do it, so I'm a wreck today.

My body thinks night is day and day is night. If left to its own devices, it goes to bed when the sun rises and wakes up at sunset. At the moment, my life is structured such that I can almost give it free rein ... except for an ongoing early afternoon appointment on Tuesdays. The thing is, I like my Tuesdays the way they are (up at 10 a.m., bed at 2 a.m.) and I wish the rest of the week would fall in line. But my body keeps rebelling. Wonder why?

I'm hoping I can reset my bedtime tonight and get it to stick. If not, what to do? I know: I'll move to Australia. Then, when my sleep patterns go out of whack there, I'll move back. Problem solved. :)

January 26, 2006

More on Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

After reading about Mr. Frey's tumultuous TV appearance today, I wish to reflect further on the subject of memoir. Though the truth is blurry and at times elusive, it’s never irrelevant. Bending the facts is a risky business.

As an example, my memoir is set in the context of a cross-Canada trip. I weave occasional anecdotes and flashbacks into the day-by-day travelogue. What if in fact I had taken no such journey, that I’d concocted my travels as a device through which to tell my tale? Describing such an account as non-fiction would in my view constitute an ethical breach, an unacceptable deviation from actual events.

So, how far can one stray from the truth? Let’s imagine that my stops in New Brunswick were Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John. Suppose further that nothing of interest took place during my time in Fredericton. I slept in, did my laundry, ate dinner, and went to bed. Am I obliged to offer a blow-by-blow account of these events because they really happened? Absolutely not. Instead, I may skip this humdrum day when I sit down to write because as it went down, it’s not worth writing about. (Believe me, boring the reader is a worse sin than lying.)

But simply omitting the mundane is not my only option. I might spice up the thrill of washing my clothes by pasting in an incident that occurred weeks later. For instance, I could drop the drunken lout I met in North Bay into the laundromat in Fredericton, thus allowing the story, not chronology, to dictate the wino’s rightful place. However, if I were to invent the character as an excuse to liven up a nothing day, I’d be crossing the line into fiction—and doing so at my peril.

A memoir cannot achieve one-hundred-percent accuracy. Despite that, a good autobiography ought to be true in its substance, plausible in its shady, grey areas, and above all, worth reading. In any case, the uproar over James Frey’s work has given authors and readers alike food for thought. Is there a line between truth and fiction? Yes, there is—and Mr. Frey has perhaps been cavalier in toying with it—but it’s fuzzy and not the great chasm it appears to be. When a story beckons me to, I straddle that line with great care, balancing the needs of the narrative with its integrity as a work of non-fiction. I’m allowed some latitude in tweaking the facts, but it’s a rather short leash. My job is to convey the essential, substantive truth as I perceive it. When it comes to creative non-fiction, veracity may be a slippery beast, but it’s no mere plaything.

Memoirs ... Like the Corners of Your Mind

A great read, yes—but is it really true?

The current controversy over James Frey’s recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has my knickers in a knot. In short, Frey has admitted to embellishing and altering aspects of his tale to serve “the greater purpose of the book.” His admission has outraged readers, pundits, and a certain celebrity patron; but its greater implications are of most concern to writers. As a budding memoirist, I dread the prospect of a just-the-facts orthodoxy creeping into literary non-fiction.

The author of a memoir is at once observer and observed. This fact alone renders objectivity an untenable expectation. Autobiographies are works of creative non-fiction, and as such, purport to be true. However, the “creative” aspect suggests that in order to be effective, memoirs should also be good stories. In other words, writers of creative non-fiction use the techniques of fiction to spin their yarns. These include embellishment, alteration, and where necessary, fabrication. This isn’t cheating: it’s an author’s right to apply the tools of the trade in service of the story.

Epistemological constraints can also propel authors toward embellishment and fabrication. The literal details of a captivating episode may be inaccessible—forgotten or altered by the mists of memory. (Like the corners of your mind.) Even more problematic, certain realities lie beyond the writer’s purview. In my work, I’ve confronted this issue when recounting a loved one’s after-death experience. Is my version correct? I can’t possibly know, but it’s front and centre in my memoir. Perhaps she guided me from the hereafter. Maybe I made it all up. More likely, I hit on some fortuitous combination. It doesn’t matter, as long as the saga is well told, as true as I can make it, and serves the overall narrative.

Memoir is neither journalism nor reportage. At each juncture, a wide array of details, literal or otherwise, can be revealed or withheld. From this smorgasbord an author chooses what to tell, deciding which aspects of a nebulous series of truths should be emphasized, minimized, or ignored. Countless such deliberations throughout the course of a book destroy any pretense to objectivity.

Of course, when a particular experience is riveting exactly as it is and we can know it as it is, we tell it as it is. Why would we not?

Introducing the V-Man

After two years of blogging in my own private world, the blogosphere has beckoned—so here I am, inching incrementally away from insularity. (I seem to be gaga over alliteration tonight. This tendency may rear its ugly head from time to time.)

About the blog's title: my stove has these day-glo orange diagrams that ostensibly tell its operator which burner is which, but me no comprende. Last week, I nearly melted a plastic bowl by turning on the wrong burner yet again. Enough was enough. I rustled through my shelves, found some unused cassette labels, wrote FRONT, REAR, REAR, FRONT on them, and slapped them on the bloody stove. Haven't had a problem since. As this anecdote illustrates, I've come to understand that my primary mode of interacting with and understanding the world is through the written and spoken word. Besides, I couldn't resist the alliteration ... hence Vern's Verbal Vibe. Especially until I get a digital camera, expect many words and few pictures.

For the next while, yer author reserves the right to update sporadically, as I'm hard at work on a full-length (actually, epic) work of literary non-fiction. As far as blogging goes, my eventual goal is to offer a generous side order of currency along with the meat-and-potatoes commentary.