Novel vs. Memoir II: Story Within a Story

Even though I knew I would be drawing heavily on my life for New Old World, I never considered writing it as a memoir. In my head, it was always a novel—because I love novels and wanted to try to write one, but also because I knew that my own life didn’t have all the dramatic turns that a good memoir needed.

For most of my career I’ve been a non-fiction writer, in journalism, public relations, and business settings, so a memoir might have been more within my skill set. I’d already stretched the bounds of journalism with Faces of a Reservation by taking a fairly personal approach to my photographic and written portrait of the Warm Springs Reservation. And I wanted to stretch even more by creating fiction out of my own life.

Like Ti in New Old World, I first planned to fictionalize my time on the reservation, but I was waylaid by life events, which agitated for a wholly different novel. I did finally start on the reservation novel about ten years ago in a largely futile attempt to move some material out of my page-heavy New Old World manuscript, but the “prequel” wanted to be its own thing and resisted these transfers. Now I have seven original but very tentative chapters sitting and waiting for me.

Back when New Old World still bore the working title En Face de L’Eglise (Opposite the Church), I wrote an opening chapter that was an amusing riff on genre. In that throat-clearing essay (“Apologia”) I described all the possible genres that my book was not, maintaining that I just wanted it to be thought of as a Story, with a capital S. I’ll be reproducing this chapter for comic relief in an upcoming blog post.

I realized even then that I was a bit torn about genres, but that I was also willing to play with them. As a result, New Old World is a kind of memoir-novel hybrid, a novel about someone writing a memoir. I suppose every novel narrated in the first person essentially is that, except Ticonderoga Fox has an acute awareness of her writing process, which creates an extra layer of story. The careful reader will see that part of this story-within-a-story is Ti’s desire to create more distance from her subject, as she gradually turns her memoir into a novel.

New Old World is a bit like a 19th-century novel in the slow, expository way it presents Ti, her family constellation, and their history. One device of older novels is to have the central story be told by someone in a tavern or around a fire or at bedtime, with the author as listener. Ti is that storyteller within my novel, and while it may seem that she’s telling the story to herself, she clearly hopes that her son, and her elders, and her lovers are listening.

Ti starts out intimately and nostalgically in the first person, but then with little warning the next three chapters are in the voices of two family members and a lover. Where did they come from? Ti invited them, in a way. She implies in her first chapter and in “Interlude” that she has drawn on the letters and memories of loved ones because it’s their story as much as hers. During the time covered by the early chapters, Ti wasn’t giving a lot of thought to her childhood or her relationships. She was raring to get on with her trip and not very interested in looking back. As the author, I saw this as an opportunity for her family and lover to introduce her and offer some backstory until such a time as Ti wanted to address those subjects herself.

Much earlier, in my very first draft, I had made a similar decision about the final chapters, though “decision” isn’t the right word because it’s just the way the chapters flowed out. It had felt natural, after Ti’s climactic event, to tell the end of the story from the perspective of observers, as if their friend/daughter/niece/wife/ex had withdrawn first to heal and then to embrace her new life, unready to give her own account of those months and years. The opening chapters were always more elusive. After reworking them many times, usually in the first person and sometimes in a mixture of narrative and journal entries, I finally hit on the idea of other people laying Ti’s foundation and then getting her on the road. This gave me my final structure—the differently voiced chapters that bookend the novel. It was a late choice that felt right.

Once Ti starts her cross-country road trip, it’s her story again, told in the first person, still in a kind of memoir style. But just before she’s ready to put herself on the plane to England, her real life intrudes: her baby has become a toddler and is not taking naps anymore, while her husband is going blind. It’s just not the right time to be writing a memoir! So she stashes it away and picks it up again—twelve years later.

That’s the enigmatic “Zigzag” chapter, where it might seem that as the author, I am interjecting myself, but it’s really Ti moving away from and back to her own just-launched opus. If this chapter is difficult to sort out, just imagine the leap of faith that would have been required in my early drafts, when Ti actually gave the manuscript to her cousin James to finish! I clung to that device for years, but realized, with the help of a couple of volunteer readers and the one editor/advisor I hired in this whole process, that it was important to keep the manuscript in Ti’s hands during the heart of the story. It was a trust issue between author and reader.

During the elapsed “down time,” Ti has come around to feeling some distance from her story. She has perspective now that she didn’t have when the events were so fresh, and she feels a natural urge to tell the story in the third person and in a more novelistic fashion. So as “Zigzag” moves along, she begins referring to herself in a mix of first and third person, trying to make a distinction between the old Ti and the new Ti, and preparing the reader for the next sections of the book, which are in the third person.

While this sense of time and distance vaguely mirrors my own experience of working on the novel over three decades, I never put the manuscript down for more than a matter of months. In fact, my own son’s early school years were my most productive time, and before he’d finished elementary school, I had a complete first draft, which I’m not proud to say I’ve been tinkering with ever since!

So now, in the “Old World” and “New World” sections, we’ve entered a third-person story that’s still very much inside Ti’s head, but with passages from other characters’ points of view as they become more important to the story. After the climax, the telling is handed back to friends and family in a long dénouement that sees Ti through a period of grief and rebirth—her new old world. We don’t hear directly from Ti again until the final poem, which adds some new information and gives a sense of circularity and completion to her story…a tale that has gone twenty years beyond her original scope.

What kind of memoir has the narrator popping in and out of her story? What kind of novel shifts the narration from first to third person as well as voice to voice? Maybe the kind of novel-memoir hybrid written by a self-taught fiction writer who feels no compunction about breaking the few rules she knows. Since I write by instinct and then edit with slightly more of my left brain (but not as much as would be engaged in an MFA program), I can only say this with assurance: that New Old World is intended as a novel about a woman who believes she is writing a memoir, until she decides she’s not.

As Ti’s alter ego and creator, it was my job to make sure she told her story as honestly and entertainingly as possible. That meant making my own life infinitely malleable, within the bounds of credibility and the conventions I created for that new life. By choosing to adhere to some aspects of my reality and to imagine others, I may have complicated matters for readers who know me. But I’ve also allowed myself to explore new, unfamiliar things like motherlessness and grief—issues that end up having more bearing on other women’s lives than on my own.

I haven’t attempted in this post to expound on the stylistic and structural differences between a novel and a memoir. But I’d like to quote my editor/advisor, who bravely attempted such a distillation in her report to me. My favorite line: “A novel, mostly unconstrained from fact, is its own unforgiving driving force, with needs that must be met, and curiosities that must be satisfied.”

By this definition, I believe my final version of New Old World is more a novel than it ever was in its 27-year-history. But it also reserves the right to be a memoir whenever it suits my protagonist and her story.

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