Fraudulent artifacts

So I’ve been thinking about this term for the last few days, ever since I heard it for the first time in a class taught by one of my students (which I was observing, as I do. Constantly. I have watched so many MFA students teach creative writing workshops over the years, I have totally made up for all the classes of this kind that I didn’t take when I was in college). Terry Wedin‘s a terrific writer and I can see that he’s going to be a very good teacher. At this point he’s still channeling, I think, his own favorite undergrad teacher, Matthew Vollmer (imitation is definitely a good place to start, in teaching as in every other art–which, come to think of it, had me at a disadvantage when I started teaching. I had to make it all up, and it was pretty rocky in the beginning). Anyway, it turns out that Vollmer, along with David Shields, brought out an anthology last year (Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts) of stories that masquerade as police blotters, letters of complaint, personal ads, etc. Terry used some of those stories and built a lesson around them, and it was interesting (and his students loved it). I left the classroom thinking about the assorted fake documents I’ve been fooling around with for the last year (or two. Or three. I’m losing track) for the novel I’ve been writing (I’m not even going to try to guess how long that’s been going on. Long time. Long enough so that I’ve taken breaks to write several other books). I haven’t been calling them “fraudulent artifacts” or “false documents” or even just “artifacts” or “documents”–I’ve been thinking of them as “detritus,” actually: the stuff we just end up leaving around, and leaving behind, as we go about our lives. Lists of various kinds. Notes we make to ourselves (at least I am forever making notes to myself). In the case of my characters, drafts of poems (two of the protagonists are poets–one accomplished and middle-aged, one a young woman, her student), blurbs from books (besides the poet, there’s a well-known novelist), drafts of blurbs for books, letters, postcards…I haven’t decided yet how much of this stuff I’m going to use. But I keep…um, generating it. Recipes. Magic set lists (really the principal protagonist is a young magician: it’s his father who’s the famous novelist, his girlfriend, later wife, who’s the young poet). A music set list from the 1970s (the young poet’s biological father was a singer-songwriter [I mean, who wasn’t, in the 1970s?] whom she never knew). And so on.

But that’s not the point (as my husband likes to say after he’s been talking for, like, fifteen minutes about something). The point isn’t that I decided to think about this detritus of my characters’ lives (which right now I’m using as separators between the sections/chapters of the novel, which moves around in time and point of view) in a new way (“fraudulent artifact” is a terrible phrase, I think, actually: both words are unnecessarily fussy–it’s just the opposite of what I tell my students about choosing words to describe things: always go for the Anglo Saxon word if you possibly can; use the Latin-derived word only when there isn’t a simpler, more straightforward way to say what you mean–unless, of course, you’re intentionally being [or letting a character be] pretentious, or you mean to be funny. Pretentious language is pretty much always funny, if you ask me. [This may be a class issue. But that’s another subject–as Grandma liked to say–not for now.])

Anyway, as I thought about the odds and ends I’ve been writing on behalf of the characters in this novel (current working title: Close-Up [most recent former working title: Misdirection; original working title (which I loved, but which no longer suits the whole novel–it’s been downgraded to a section title): Delirious]), I happened to have a conversation via email with someone I’ve just “met” (not face to face! Does anyone ever meet anyone face to face anymore?), Lee Klein, who said

I guess the risk is maybe that such dealios (my technical term for these so-called artifacts) might seem, well, faked/fraudulent — the big sin these days for me as a reader.

So of course I asked him why, in the context of a novel (in which everything is “faked,” isn’t it?), those “dealios” (I’m sticking with detritus, myself, though I admit I was somewhat charmed by dealios) would seem any falser than the narrative around them. And Lee–who just published a story of mine (more on this in a second) in (on? I have never worked out this preposition, in this context) the online magazine he edits, Eyeshot–said

Ha – I guess, with fiction, especially since so many/almost all writers are so schooled these days in the mechanics of fictional activities (MFA), I’m on guard against bits in a story that seem like fiction. I really primarily read very old-fashioned stuff by writers so old they’ve long left the realm of the living. These novels never feel “fictional” or “fake” to me the way some contemporary novels feel. I guess I’m on guard against the “creative writing” craft. I know that Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” incorporates tons of lists etc and the detritus of lives, but they’re woven into paragraphs, not set off as separate bits. I guess I’m saying that there’s a risk with these “fradulent artifacts” that they might call too much attention to themselves and to the author instead of the world of the story….Much of what I liked about your story is the way it seemed at least to weave fiction and non-fiction in such a way that everything was absolutely believable, which Twain says is the difference between fiction and non-fiction (fiction must be absolutely believable). “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, there is a shimmering go-between, a prism, which is the art of literature,” says Baron Vlad Nabokov.

Which brings me to the actual point (as my husband would say, finally–we’re more like each other than anyone realizes, despite the fact that he is almost completely antisocial and I am as much of a social butterfly as it’s possible to be and still be a writer who spends most of her time alone, working): any piece of first-person fiction is a fraudulent document of some kind (right, Terry?). I’d never given much thought to it because I almost never write fiction in first person. Oh, I’ve talked in class about the various forms a piece of first-person fiction might take, and the way time and tense and narrative stance works in a first-person story or novel. But I’ve never thought in a serious way about the relationship between the “fake memoir” (Philip Roth’s My Life As A Man, for example–a book I love) and the “real memoir” (in this case, sadly enough, there is a real-memoir-counterpart, an awful book called The Facts that I wish Roth had never written) in terms of purpose served.

As someone who’s been writing a hell of a lot of personal nonfiction over the last few years (not really quite memoir–or rather, something I’ve taken to calling memoir-plus, mostly in the form of very long [novella-long] personal essays), and who writes fiction almost exclusively in third person–so that some days I feel like a split personality, moving back and forth between the two–this seems to me an interesting vein to mine. And especially because (I told you I’d get around to it eventually) I’ve just published (or Lee has just published) a short story online that is a shining example of a false memoir.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good story (I have my doubts). But it’s worth talking about it as a false memoir, I think, because it started out life as a real one.

For a long time I’d thought about writing about a girl I’d known in high school–she’d made a big impression on me, and I’d thought about her often over the years, the decades, since I last laid eyes on her. She was completely mysterious to me then, an object of great fascination. I was a complete mystery to myself then, of course, too–but there was a difference: I didn’t know how little I understood myself; it was plain to me how little I understood my friend.

Finally, several years ago, in a lull between other projects, I sat down to write an essay about her. I wanted to look at her mysteriousness itself, and at my own bafflement and enthrallment. I wanted to look at a time in my life–and a time–when young girls, children really, had convinced themselves that they had to behave as if they knew what they were doing, had to pretend to want what they weren’t sure they wanted, and at the way everything around them (their friends, doing exactly the same thing, the drudgery and meaninglessness of school, their resolutely blindly unknowing parents and teachers, and of course all the lost boys who tried to carry on with great bravado, who did harm to those girls, who were allowed or even encouraged to do harm). It was a big task–bigger than I could manage. And when I’d finished a “showable draft” (eight, ten drafts in, I finally had–this is my usual way of doing things–a version I felt I could show someone before I dug back in), I did show it to a couple of other writers. No one could put her finger on what was wrong with it, but something was wrong with it.

And then I found the “girl” (now, like me, a woman in her late fifties) I had written about. I had never stopped looking for her, but it has become ever-easier to find people, and I am a very steady and persistent detective when it comes to my own lost people. (The subject of my determination to find and be in touch with every single person I have ever known is something I’ve been thinking about writing an essay about for years. And someday I will.) I found her, and we talked (online! Not in person!), and eventually I told her I had just written an essay about her; I asked if she would like to see it.

I was excited. We’d never really talked, back then, and I had no idea if she knew how fascinated I had been with her–certainly she couldn’t have known how much I’d thought about her in the years since! I was sure there were things we’d remember differently, things she’d want to correct. I was ready to make corrections. I hadn’t yet decided whether finding her should become a part of the essay.

Her response was bracing–and really kind of wonderful. We had quite a lengthy email exchange, and I learned much more about her than I had ever known when we were girls. She was very hard on me, too. Not because she objected to anything I’d said about her, all those years ago, but because she thought I was being much too easy on my current self as I looked back: it was one thing, she said, for me to have been mystified by her then, but another altogether for me to look back on what little I knew then–what I saw, what I’d heard–and let myself off the hook as a middle-aged woman (a writer, yet! someone who thinks about things for a living) (I almost wrote back, Well, not very much of a living, really). Why not think harder about who she had been and try to figure it out? Why not try to understand how difficult her life had been? (As it turns out, it had been very difficult indeed–and as she told me more and more about it, I was heartbroken for her, and shocked, and enraged with myself for not having been able to see through some of the facade back then…and enraged with everything about our lives then that kept us from see and responding to what was true, from the world of pain itself.)

I thought a lot about what she (I am not going to mention her name–either the name she had then, or the name she uses now) said. I thought about what my students are always referring to as “the double I” in memoir (for my part, I think there are so many versions of the self at work in memoir, that just two seems way oversimplifying matters), and about whether I wanted the “I” of the present day, the version myself that was telling the story, to wrestle with all of this. And I understood that I did not. That wasn’t what was interesting to me about the story I was telling–it was only the girls we were forty-plus years ago. And so it occurred to me–it was like a bolt of lightning–that this had to be a story, not nonfiction. I set myself to that task, and the work went quickly–thrillingly–as it rarely does for me. It was clear to me that I wanted to keep the story in first person–and it became clear too, very quickly, that I couldn’t set the story forty years ago, couldn’t write it without the framing narrative of a contemporary narrator looking back. Because it was the looking back (and hence all that exposition; as in all memoirs, real or fraudulent, there is a lot of exposition) that had brought me to the page in the first place: it was the reflection on what had happened that was interesting to me, at least as much as (more than?) the story of what happened itself. (And this, I fear, is the story of myl life. But that’s a whole ‘nother subject too.)

The final “revelation” (minirevelation) of writing this story was that if I created a middle-aged narrator for whom this was a memoir, I would be able to explore the possibilities of the telling itself–that there would be a reason my protagonist could not or would not do the work my old friend had demanded of me. Many reasons, in fact. And the reasons, which remain hidden the way such reasons do, bubbling beneath the surface of the story, go a long way toward making up the story itself.

I’ve linked to the story elsewhere on this website, but here it is again, at Eyeshot. I had no plans to speak publicly about how the story came about (though my own explanation, about my own story, I think, goes a long way toward explaining also why Roth’s The Facts wasn’t any good whereas My Life As A Man is brilliant [in, as they say, my humble opinion. But I never use that phrase–or its acronym, IMHO–because my opinions are never humble]) but all of this talk about fake artifacts–it was just irresistible to me to see it in this light!

This has been much, much longer than I would have expected. No doubt at least in part because I have been dreading today’s work on the novel–a particularly hard part of it to write. In part because it has no basis whatsoever, not even the tiniest nugget, in real life as I’ve known it.

[Note: the photograph I decided somewhat whimsically to use to “illustrate” this blog post is my high school graduation picture. It was taken in the fall of 1971.]