Finding Truth in Fiction
By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor
In the late 1960s, I believed in pure fiction, and as a writer set out to imagine and portray the inner life of working-class characters in my father’s candy factory. I also kept a writer’s notebook on the side, where I vented and mulled about my escapades and follies as a lonely graduate student. In an entire chapter of my novel—“Ballgame” (1971)—I transferred my first-person notebook description of attending a Redsox vs. Twins pennant game into the third person of my old maid character, Anna Maye Potts. What came alive in the fiction was a kind of agoraphobic panic, causing my former mentor Richard Yates to praise: “Don’t change a word.”
Other times, the novel painted me into corners. The widowed and womanizing foreman character, Louie, who would later marry Anna Maye, struggled alone to care for his retarded daughter. This was a life-fact I had heard about an actual foreman in my father’s factory, but lacking any experience with down syndrome, I volunteered at a nearby state school in order to learn, feel, and imagine the circumstances more accurately. The novel took years to complete and then more years to publish. During its writing, I married, had children, and struggled to find work, while also struggling to found a literary magazine, support my family, and deal with the deaths of my parents.
When I interviewed Richard Yates (with Geoffrey Clark) in 1972 and asked about autobiographical fiction, Yates responded first about Revolutionary Road: “There’s plenty of myself in that book—every character in the book was partially based on myself, or on some aspect of myself, or on people I knew or composites of people I knew, but each of them was very carefully put through a kind of fictional prism, so that in the finished book, I like to think the reader can’t really find the author anywhere.” Then about his “autobiographical blowout,” the story, “Builders”: “I think that story did work, because it was formed. It was objectified. Somehow, and maybe it was just luck, I managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction—self-pity and self-aggrandizement….Anybody can scribble out a confession or a memoir or a diary or a chronicle of personal experience, but how many writers can form that kind of material?”
I loved Tim O’Brien’s distinction in The Things They Carried between happening truth and story truth. To tell a true war story (or any story), you need to avoid the conventional lies of heroism and valor and instead expose the obscenity and absurdity of combat. Also: “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
I abandoned fiction and turned to writing my family’s story as I had heard and witnessed it. I felt that the felt truth of my supposedly privileged background was too important to put through “a kind of fictional prism.” I also experimented with personal essays.
One of these is “Bungee.” I was fascinated by watching bungee jumpers on the cliffside tower at High Camp at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. Kids, tourists, thrill seekers: would I do that? Would I take the risk? Back home in Boston, I described my own jump in detail, when in fact, I had only watched. I ended my account on a Tim O’Brien-ish note: “Did I jump or didn’t I? Who cares?” I read it at Squaw Valley the next year, with everybody convinced that I had jumped; so at that point I decided to try, paid my money, climbed the scaffold and did—literally—jump. All I learned from the happening fact was that the fall felt faster than I had imagined, with no time to think. Otherwise, I had imagined everything correctly. My point was that most experiences were like that, imaginable. That we don’t have to bullfight to write believably about bullfighting, or love, or crime, or suicide. We can have the experience in imagination without the consequence in life. As Eudora Welty put it, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
In other stories, I evolved a narrative persona. Late middle age, a father concerned with raising a daughter and son in a rapidly changing culture. Then a grandfather. A bookish husband with a brave-hearted, loving wife. However, in using family material, I also risked offending those I loved for the sake of my own truths. I invaded privacies. My wife objected. I thought my sister understood and didn’t object, but then she did, and I had to live with the pain of having caused them both pain for the sake of the art. Lowell’s confessional poetry was one inspiration (“Yet why not say what happened? / Pray for the grace of accuracy”), but then I also read more widely in memoir, admiring Frank Conroy (who insisted that Stop Time was a novel), Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, and others.
There had to be detachment and a distance from myself. In my full-length memoir, Sweet Dreams, the distance came from time. In my mid-sixties, I set my narrating self in my mid-fifties, and from that vantage told my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. After writing “objective” fiction, I found it freeing to write in first-person, and in a voice and vocabulary closer to my own, while also foregrounding subjectivity as part of the art.
Though Norman Mailer called himself Mailer in his nonfiction books, I resisted pretending to third person objectivity by calling myself by name. I liked the drama of struggling for perspective. I liked involving the reader in issues of self-reliability. On the other hand, having written a first-person account of getting a therapeutic massage and reliving core emotions through body memory, when I did publish it, I changed all the “I’s” to a third person last name, Harris, the thinnest of disguises, but one that helped my wife to accept my writing about our marriage.
My former student and successor at Ploughshares, Don Lee, mocked literary Boston and the magazine itself in his novel The Collective (Norton, 2012). His narrator, Eric, takes an MFA at “Walden” rather than Emerson College, where he interns at Palaver rather than Ploughshares, and describes the editor as “my principle workshop teacher [which I was], Evan Pavirono, a British-Italian scholar, bon vivant, and wastrel. He was a charismatic, towering presence at six-foot-five, beefy verging on portly, with thick brown hair he kept long and swept back,” which describes the co-founder of Ploughshares, Peter O’Malley, rather than me. In fact, I have been erased and replaced by my opposite. Should I feel offended? Unsure of Lee’s intention, I let it pass.
And one last twist on this subject. Having known Yates as a person and writer for years, and having read all of his fiction closely, I knew firsthand about his psychotic breakdowns, and worried about his losing generosity of perspective in his fictionalized self-portraits (think of the contrast between John Givings in Revolutionary Road and the “poet” Wilder in Disturbing the Peace). But only after reading Blake Bailey’s detailed biography of Yates after his death, did I appreciate how obsessively autobiographical all of his fiction was, and how hard he had struggled to be one on whom nothing was lost.
DeWitt Henry’s Sweet Marjoram: Notes & Essays is now available from MadHat Press.
[Note: extended quotes from this article appeared in an article by Jack Smith in The Writer, August, 2018]