To fictionify or not to fictionify


I’m working on a few different works of writing born from my time abroad in the Caribbean and West Africa right now and… well… actually, “right now” doesn’t about cover it.

More accurate: polishing a mostly completed book proposal I’ve been poking at since 2011 and also now I’m flailing around (in a fun and yet also sometimes emotionally rough way…) with the  follow-up to said nicely proposed memoir. But the bulk of the work really started back in… hooh… I’d say the summer of 2011.

The goodies within are tales of silly, leafy, dangerous and amazingly hot places and things to eat and they’re connected by overarching stories of important life things I learned during my adventures abroad. And while, as you know (as I’ve written about before), I feel super icky about sharing a lot of things from my life sometimes because I don’t like or want to think of myself as a commodity… every time I come back to these memoir-ish projects I’m smacked by the importance (to me, at least) of the ideas and realizations driving them and I am reminded that, yes, it is worthwhile to keep working on these things.

Because developing these book projects means advancing a conversation about issues I believe should be more conversed about (what it means to be a woman in the world these days and what it means to be a global citizen these days and also how to most effectively stifle one’s gastrointestinal problems when communal squat toilets are the only option) and, y’know, somehow I continue to find the writing funny and thoughtful and I even amuse MY TOTALLY CRITICAL SELF after several years and that is RARE for me. In fact, I already hate that sentence I just wrote but for the sake of making my point, I won’t erase it. (Lucky you, reader!)

Believe me, I understand the necessity to murder one’s darlings when it comes to pieces of writing that have to *B draws finger across neck*. There are more literary bodies heaped under this surprisingly camouflaging Ikea couch skirt than you will ever know. But these memoir-y darlings I’m talking to you about, I don’t think they’re supposed to be axed. Or not yet.

But the more I read about marketing memoirs and the more I talk to agents and read about what it means to publish something like a memoir through a traditional publisher, the more I feel capital-yuck GROSS.

It seems to be largely about selling the person telling the story, and not so much the story itself. It’s about getting enough social media pre-support for the writer (in the form of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and general presence on the webz) to say to the publishers, “Hey, look how many people like this author! Hopefully a fraction of them will then buy her book and make it worth your while to publish it!” And the writing that author has created? It’s a small detail that can be massaged with the help of the right editors. The important thing is the persona in the author photo and how many people will shell out a few bucks for her.

And so I start to wonder… what if I magically changed all the “I”s to “she”s? Or what if a few more names were changed and then I added a really sassy cat or cockatoo and then, voila, the story was suddenly fiction?

Since I’m still such a dummy in this whole publishing game I just don’t know what would happen but it’s my suspicion that fiction writers do not have to take the same shizz when it comes to shaping their image. Again from my COMPLETELY newbie wondering place (la la la, it is shiny, this new place of contemplation), it seems to me like for fiction it is the work of writing that either makes or breaks a deal and that stands on its own even if the author is a recluse and doesn’t know the first thing about what to do on social media or how to brush his or her hair.

I’ve been to more than a few author conferences where industry consultants talk to novelists about the importance of communicating their brand on social media— their advice about same is has roughly a Wikipedia blurb’s worth of usefulness. It’s like social media 101… except… what comes before 101 and then what also comes before that? In short, compared to the social zip zap zooie I see in my communications job (non-publishing-related) the expectations of novelists appear to be LOW! And then if they do it well, hot damn, it’s a bonus. And then if they’re frickin’ Twitter prodigies like Teju Cole, well, all of humanity is made better for it, but that’s another matter entirely.

But what does one give up when just slapping the “fiction” label onto something that pretty much really and truly happened to them? I mean, obviously it doesn’t really change the impact of the story on the reader. The characters in War and Peace are as real as any old thing in Eat, Pray, Love (ho ho). And yet it seems to me it does significantly adjust the expectations on the author (ie; treats them more like an author and less like a piece of meat) and I wonder if that’s a more comfortable place for me to be.

That said, my “true” fiction (that is, fiction written to be fiction!) has a completely different voice and intent than my memoir writing and if I started publishing these memoir-ish pieces as fiction and then later down the line wanted to publish one of my legit and way more literary-feeling novels would that be a no-go because it was such a different flavour from the rest of my brand? And do I care at all?

And, let’s bring in the philosophy police for a minute: what are the ethical considerations of calling something that is truly memoir a piece of fiction? Especially if the goal behind doing so is just to demand some respect as a writer?

I hope it is possible to find a way to publish these memoir-y things as what they are without feeling like I have to tart myself up or compromise my products OR pretend they’re fiction when they’re not. But I suppose it’s all a matter of what I want out of the publishing process— to be backed by a legit publisher (thus demanding a slicker author profile for a memoir and reducing the degree of respect for the written work— or so it seems from my jaded space tonight; or else getting more creative leeway but having to call something fiction which is not fiction) ; or, is there another way that bestows the story product credibility and yet lets me be who I am, a memoirist with crazy unkempt hairdo and awkwardness and a tiny cohort of Twitter followers and all?

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