The Reluctant Memoirist: Moving from Fiction in Uncertain Times

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Editor's Note:

Elizabeth L. Silver is the author of the novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, which was published in seven languages. Her writing has been published in McSweeney’s, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Los Angeles. Her latest book, the memoir The Tincture of Time, is now available.

I never set out to become a memoirist. It wasn’t that I was one-sided in my creative aspirations. I longed to write fiction – novels and short stories, scripts for the stage and screen. Some of my personal life invariably winds up in those fictional worlds. I’m also not a particularly private person. I share intimate details of my life with select friends and family and even new acquaintances, granting unconscious permission for them to similarly share their own lives with me, and together we create a private intimacy in the form of friendship that lasts. Friends, family, parenthood, the relationships that define our lives – all necessarily placed on paper in memoirs, which help us understand this shared vulnerability of life, the absolute need to connect. Memoir allows this unspoken bond between reader and writer, in many ways creating a one-sided friendship. But a friendship, an intimacy that helps me when I read, I hope will accomplish the same when I write.

When my daughter had a stroke at six weeks of age, my world stopped and the only way I could make meaning of it was to write about it. So I put down my fiction, and after a great deal of time away from the page, I began writing again. Only it was in the form of essays. I researched abstract concepts of uncertainty, read medical narratives. This was the world my life was becoming, a nebulous world of what may or may not have become my future. Placing those sentiments in a fictional world felt escapist in a way that nonfiction didn’t. I didn’t want to escape. I wanted to embrace my real life, whatever it was becoming.

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Writing about one’s own life while it is happening is living life in perpetual conflict. Do you wait until the moment has passed to sit, contemplate, and make meaning of it? Or do you write through the moment, capturing the perspective and emotions only as you could while in existence? Instructors of writing often recommend that memoirists allot sufficient time for the experience to be understood, re-calibrated in time and memory, before it finds its way onto the page as art. But the experience of uncertainty is so immediate, so urgent. Once enough time passes to analyze it, you are only living retrospectively, in what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “remembering memory,” which is different from the “experiencing memory” and therefore unable to capture the experience of uncertainty, which is so universal that it must be told contemporaneously.

The memoir I wrote, chronicling the uncertainty of medicine in the light of my daughter’s stroke, quite simply could never have been written with such clear hindsight of her recovery. A book that details the wiry passages of the unknown could not be properly captured with a fully known outcome. The emotions may not have been as accessible; they would have been interpreted and reinterpreted, perhaps in important but altogether different ways. The narrative might also be important, but it, too, would be a different one. It would exclusively tell a tale of overcoming illness instead of the fear of experiencing it while living under the cloud of that uncertainty.

Fiction is different. Fiction is my first love. Fiction is where I’ve always felt at home. But with nonfiction, I’ve found a new home, a new means of expression that feels as comfortable as fiction does. It stretches different muscles. Though my first book was a novel, I find it difficult to take on one label, make the presumption that we are only one type of a writer, that we can only write one genre, one story. Storytelling is storytelling. The right story will yield the right format, the right medium. What is more frustrating than a movie adaptation that should never have been made? The story will choose the medium, the genre; as writers, we follow suit.

Memoir and fiction are narratives equally. They each borrow truths, they each use perspectives, they each impart meaning on life. One needs fact-checking a lot more than the other, but both can be told in the same way. I wrote my novel over five years and this memoir over two and a half years. I wrote them both in fragments. I wrote them both out of order. I wrote them both trying to convey a particular message. And both, I hope, represent a truth.