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At a recent reading of her new memoir, A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates talked about how, during the period of her husband death, she found it difficult to work on her novel.  Although during that time, she wrote three short stories (Sourland: Stories), with widows as central characters, she said she found she couldn’t convey her experiences through fiction. Instead, she wrote in her journal which eventually became a part of the memoir.   It’s interesting that she decided not to revise those journal entries to a memoir format. 

That got me thinking.  Are there stories better told  – or perhaps they demand to be told – as non-fiction?  Or does it have more to do with the writer?   Are there stories we have in our heads which we are unable to bring ourselves to write as fiction and vice versa?

There have been events and people in my life that I’ve always felt best left as fictional.  With that said, I’ve tried a few times to insert some true-life situations only to be told they were too unbelievable.  For fiction.  So just because it’s true doesn’t make it believable. Does that mean in those cases, only non-fiction will do? After all, either genre can illuminate a truth of the human condition.

But who doesn’t want reality to be something other than it is? Maybe that’s why I prefer writing fiction rather than creative non-fiction. Fiction allows me to manipulate and shape actual meaningless and traumatic events into something meaningful and transformative. I can use imagery, setting, characterization, etc.  Fiction, in a way, reflects the truth that reality can’t elegantly reveal.

And maybe that’s why this time fiction wouldn’t work for Oates.  She felt it important to maintain her journal’s original prose to accurately convey her experience as it was happening. It was as if her loss and grief had to be told in the reality that is. Factual. Messy. And of the moment. So a memoir was the way that her truth had to be conveyed.

I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but the attempted embodiment of a vision; a complex of emotions; raw experience.  The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort.  – Joyce Carol Oates (from The Faith of a Writer)