When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.
Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.
For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.
Then two things happened:
#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.
#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.
As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.
That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.
I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.
I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.
Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?
I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.
Then, two things happened:
#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.
#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.
These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.