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What's Real and What Isn't

I launched "Nomads 2," my new collection of mini-stories, at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village last night. It’s a well known performance space and I was pleased to get a slot in their schedule so close to my appearance there for the first "Nomads" last January. On both occasions, I collaborated with actors, I didn’t read my own work, and I have been learning a lot. Friends, family, students, and some strangers were present. People laughed, they applauded, all in the most unexpected places for me, the writer. What’s real and what isn’t? This odd question kept occurring to me all night. The prose on the page is real, I know what everything means, or what I meant to say. But an audience, especially if actors are re-interpreting my words, experience what I wrote differently. And this sets me to thinking about ways to improve, to get the story straight, and to make the best use of words. These mini-stories are disciplined distillations. I love writing them.

And then, this morning, my husband—who doesn’t read my work until it is published—asked me if one particular story was based on a real incident. He recognized a snippet of dialogue and he wanted to know if it really happened. I was uncomfortable and became defensive. Had I appropriated something from his life that he wanted to write about? No, that wasn’t it. So what was it? “Is this fact or fiction?” he asked. “Is the line clear?”

He’s an historian and journalist by training and most of his imaginative writing—in the form of screenplays—is fact-based. I had thought he understood that these stories were clearly fiction, but he does not write fiction, so he doesn’t understand: a fiction writer has the prerogative to use the raw material of her life to create a work. It’s a process of transformation which may or may not involve research as well as imagination. But nothing is only imaginative or only fact-based; it comes from somewhere, it is transformed into art. And if a snippet of dialogue, for example, sounds familiar to those near and dear, we do not have to explain, unless we want to. I don’t.
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