Writing is like lucid dreaming. Rather than being borne along by the strange images that come to us unbidden in sleep, when we write we are the directors and producers of our imagination, and we can make anything happen!
Well, yes and no. In memoir, we write to explore what really happened in our lives, so we’re bound by the conventions of truth.
But sometimes the deepest truths we know can only be told through fiction. And it can be a liberating and fun exercise to embroider some fiction into the solid truth of our memories, just the way we do in dreams or daydreams.
At my upcoming writing workshop at Bascom Lodge, at the summit of Mount Greylock, we’re going to play around at spicing up our memories with “the stuff of dreams,” as Shakespeare put it.
I call the workshop “Making Magic on the Mountain,” partly in homage to master storyteller J.K. Rowling, who used the lighthouse at the top of the mountain as a setting for one of her magical tales; but mostly because my intention is for us to wave the wands of our pens and make magic happen on our pages.
We’re going to ask two grand questions of our own life stories, the ones that spill off the tongue of every two-year-old human being: “Why?” and “What if…?”
To take an example from my own life story, I might ask, “Why did I decide to major in English and pursue my love of reading and writing all the way through a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature?”
To answer this question I would have to try to get back into my own mind as a teenager and twenty-something. What other options might I have pursued, and why did I decide to remain safely in the role I’d played since I could sit up and turn pages: the bookworm?
And then it would be fun to wave my magic wand and ask a different question: “What if I had followed my other passion, for being outdoors in nature, to a different career? What if I had become a forest ranger, or a wildlife biologist?”
As a writer of memoir, I can explore that question as part of the speculative daydreams that come over me sometimes, when I have the time to pause and look back over choices I’ve made and roads not taken.
As a writer of fiction, I could actually double back and take that road, inventing a character who could give me the chance to experience a very different life—at least in my imagination (and possibly through the exciting reality of a research trip or two).
The point of this exercise in “purposeful daydreaming” is to emphasize that the boundaries between memoir and fiction are more fluid than you’d think, at least from a writer’s point of view. You can weave your daydreams into your memoir, as long as you identify them as such; and you can use your memoir as a springboard for refreshing dives into fiction.
Fiction can also help us grapple with the darker experiences in our lives, the ones that might be too painful or embarrassing to reveal without the mediating distance of make-believe. Just as therapists will sometimes invite clients to “role-play” through difficult scenes, using the power of hindsight to achieve greater understanding and, perhaps, different outcomes, you can use a combination of memoir and fiction to do this for yourself.
Here’s how: First, write the scene as you remember it happened. Then, write some commentary, asking “Why?” Finally, go back to it again with your magic wand, and ask, “What if…?”
To use the same example from my life:
I remember the scene when I got my grades back from my first semester in college. A’s in English, C’s in environmental studies. I was horrified and ashamed of those C’s, and my response was to stop taking science courses, beating a retreat into the safety of English classes.
Why did I get C’s in environmental studies? Because I was very bad at math and stats, and there were no tutors in those days. It was sink or swim, and I sank. Also, my strengths lay elsewhere: I loved to observe nature and write about it, not to make statistical studies of species diversity.
What if I had valued my gift for nature writing more highly, or found a mentor to guide me into a career that made use of my talents and passions? What if, instead of spending years writing a BA thesis, an MA thesis and a dissertation that no one would ever read or care about, I had finished the magical environmental fairytale I’d started as a child, and found a way to publish it?
We can’t change what’s happened, but we can play around with alternate realities through the magic of writing, and why shouldn’t we? As we explore roads not taken, we end up learning more about ourselves and the reasons we made the choices we did.
And not only that, but we have some fun along the way!