To the best of my knowledge, I had never encountered the phrase “fictional memoir” when I appended it to the title of Becca’s Book. At the time I was fairly blasé about authoring the phrase–ho-hum, I’ve just created a new genre of literature; now what should I do after lunch?
But the more I think about it–and the more I’ve kept my ears and eyes open for the phrase–the more surprised I am not to have heard it spoken or seen it written. It seems to me that much fiction, perhaps even most fiction, falls into the broad category of fictional memoir–is based to one degree or another on personal experience, both real and imagined. The core premise of the novel–write clearly about what you know–seems an implicit confirmation of this fact.
A quick survey of our fictional heritage affirms this idea. Most if not all war novels–A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Going after Cacciato, to name but a few–are fictionalized accounts of direct experience. The best fiction of writers as diverse in period and style as Melville, Tolstoy, Flaubert, the Bronte sisters, London, Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf, Waugh, Salinger, Updike, Salter (and on and on) derives from fictionalized memory and experience. And Proust and his American heir Thomas Wolfe essentially define the phrase with their literary careers. (One could fill many volumes, or terabytes of digital storage, with a detailed search of real-life counterparts to fictional characters and places and events–an exercise for another time and place and author. But I’d like to note a great but little known example of fictional memoir–The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards. Give it a read if you can find a copy.)
By now you’re probably thinking–this guy is stating the obvious: viewed broadly enough, all fiction is derived from real or imagined experience! And that’s exactly my point. The uncommon phrase fictional memoir covers a huge swath of familiar territory.
But, like most empirical truths, this understanding simply denotes the beginning of the journey, the start of an exploration that yields its greatest rewards not so much in the real-life who or what or where that underlies the fiction as in where do we go when we leave real memory and experience behind. What secrets and revelations are hidden beneath and beyond the known, in the regions of the heart and mind and soul that aren’t constrained by reality?
So we start in the real world and end up somewhere else. Isn’t that why we write? Isn’t that why we read?