As we considered the submissions for this issue, a theme suggested itself. Memory. Memoir excerpts, personal essays, and that quintessence of memory, poetry, far outnumbered the fiction that was sent to us this time. But fiction fits the theme as well. Doesn’t all writing begin with memory? If not a momentous event, then something small—an image, a smell, the timbre of a voice.
Everyone has memory. Animals have memory; so do shrubs and trees for all I know. The literary writer, however, must do the work of transforming memory into something else. As Christine Hale, in her Craft Session column this issue (“Writing Memoir?”), says, “Patiently, draft by draft, the memoirist applies writing craft to the fruits of introspection.”
The writer has another task, when pondering the best use of memory. It’s the first task, in fact, a sometimes-hard choice: should this be nonfiction or fiction? Tommy Hays describes the progression of his own quandary in the essay below (“The Memoir That Became a Novel”). Tommy obviously chose wisely.
I have a friend who was not so lucky. One day, years ago, when I was in the middle of my first attempt at a novel, my friend announced that he was writing a novel, too. He showed me the hefty black binder he’d bought, gutless except for a one-page table of contents. Twelve chapters with intriguing titles such as “Starlet” and “Tsunami.” I recognized in these titles true stories he’d often told about himself. I protested. He was writing a memoir, not a novel. No, no, he countered. It was a novel. He had it all figured out. He’d write a chapter a week. It would be a breeze.
Each week thereafter, he showed me a stack of printed pages, holes already punched down the side, ready for insertion into the binder. He finished a novel in exactly twelve weeks, and he did it cheerfully—no cursing, whining, or wishing to be somewhere else. I suffered a seizure of writer-envy fueled by writer-fury. How could my doldrums be his breeze?
An answer came some time after that when my friend sent me comments he’d received from an agent. She worried about the way in which he’d combined the elements of memoir and novel. In doing so, she suggested, a writer “risks losing the structural and descriptive freedom of fiction while, in transferring to the third person [he also risks losing] the immediacy and personal ‘voice’ of memoir.” She was urging my friend to choose between fiction and nonfiction and then give it everything he’s got. Forget the breeze; go for the storm.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, whether from experienced writers or those savoring their first taste of publication, each work in this issue is storm-driven. And each piece wears its genre well. For me, this is surely a sign that the writer has made the right choice—when it doesn’t seem like a choice at all.
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