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Fact or Fiction?

September 25, 2012

My daughter Madeleine came up behind me one day as I was editing one of my stories.

“Who’s Susan?” she asked.

“A character in my story,” I explained, wishing she would go away and listen to her I-pod.

“It says, ‘Susan hated the first day of group.’ What kind of group?”

“She’s a social worker,” I explained.

“Ah, ha!” She laughed and wagged a finger at me. “Susan is you!”

I hit save and led her downstairs to help me start dinner. “She’s not me. She’s made up but I decided to make her a social worker because I know what that job is like.”

It’s an age old problem, I know. Fiction writers are always accused of ‘stealing’ from real life, or not really “making things up.” Even I have been guilty of regarding the fiction of friends or acquaintances as thinly masked autobiography. I too, have gleefully gobbled books and stories, scanning for personal details or my friends’ real feelings about their mothers or ex-lovers. But it wasn’t until I read Colm Toibin’s recent New York Times piece, “What is Real is Imagined” that I found a compelling argument to try on my daughter.

Toibin says, “If I made up a mother and put her in another town, a town I had never seen, I wouldn’t bother working at all. I would turn to drink, or just sit at home, or run for election. If I had to stick to the facts, the bare truth of things, that would be no use either. It would be thin and strange, as yesterday seems thin and strange, or indeed today.”

He argues that when he draws upon his own life, the details give the writing a rhythm and sound that comes from the nervous system rather than the mind.” It’s the shape of the story that comes first and then, Toibin says, “the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. Then the phrases and sentences begin, another day’s work.”

Susan, my me-not-me character, is the shape on which I hang my story about the intersection of hypocrisy and the desire to effect social change. (Sound intriguing?)

But now my curious daughter is reading over my shoulder again as I write this blog.

“I didn’t ask about Susan’s group,” Madeleine protests.

I shrug and smile. “It doesn’t matter. I’m making it up.”

Colm Toibin July 14, 2012,

What Is Real Is Imagined

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012 6:21 pm

    Ironical, as I struggle to nail down facts which increasingly meander towards fiction in my memoir.

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