Now that my collection of true stories has finally been written, revised, edited and recorded, I have a bit of freedom to reflect over the respective benefits of fiction vs. non-fiction. While much of this pondering has directly led to unexpected mid-afternoon naps, I might have gleaned an insight or two these past few days.
My entire writing career prior to “These Stories Are True” had me solidly on the side of pure fiction; the creativity and uniqueness of making things up out of thin air was a driving force compelling me to become a writer in the first place. I was never aiming to throw shade on an ex-girlfriend, family member or crazy boss. And deep down, I believed my life was too boring to bother joining in on what everyone else around me seemed to be settling into; namely, culling stories directly from their own personal histories.
For me, any attempt to compose an utterly truthful story felt likely to produce an embarrassing heap of yawn-inducing prose. Until recently, I was more than content to let my mind wander and allow the plot to do the same. As long as the original premise felt promising, I was content to let the real me disappear while newly-created characters took over.
I felt confident my first-person narrators would never be confused as me. I’ve since found out, years later, how wrong this assumption was. Which is confounding, to be truthful. Many of my earlier lead characters could have probably been described as well-meaning idiots. Did friends and teachers reading these stories believe I considered myself the same?
Actually, I’m not sure I want an answer to that question…
Well, now that I’ve had time to digest the finished product of what has been my first-ever book of completely true stories, I can admit that the “well-meaning idiot” moniker could easily be applied to me on multiple occasions. So I started thinking… Maybe the real me has made appearances more often than not throughout the course of my fiction-writing career.
I’ve since done a quick perusal of those six short story collections, all of which are available for purchase on michaelaba.com. And sure enough, there are undoubtedly fragments where actual events or genuine interactions are being conveyed.
But they are SO TINY!
Let’s go down the list for a few examples.
In the “Early Odds and Split Ends” book, I really did catch a late-night winter’s ride from a local priest while hitchhiking, as described in “My Confession” - but everything else was made up. A college roommate was actually reading a book called “The Last of the Just”, which both the lead character in “Bernard’s Conclusion” and I, the author, believed exemplified perfectly how this person - both the genuine and fictionalized version - thought of himself. Nothing else in this story came from real life.
In the “Michelle” collection, my older sister STILL believes “Circles and Squares” was written directly about her, her husband, and family of three (including twins), but no - I just borrowed the setting (including the twins) and let my imagination take off. I really did have contact with a man whose purpose in life seemed to be to laugh uproariously at whatever words came out of his boss’s mouth, ala “Working for Dean Droll”, but that’s as far into non-fiction as I was able to go.
In “Bingo Ray”, I truly did meet a hand model one evening, but never heard from her again. I actually considered in real life offering the rather risqué suggestion my character James proffers in the story “Jessica, James & Sheila”, but backed off and let my characters experience the results for themselves. Oh, and lots of friends think (perhaps because the lead character is named “Michael”?…) that “My Shrinking Harem” is obviously about me. Of that interpretation, well - it’s probably in my best interests to remain silent.
In “Washed Clothes”, the opening premise of “Barbara’s Getting Married” is true, and I really did meet - but never had a relationship with - a “Lunch Hour Girl” who claimed to enjoy sex only during the hour between noon and one. “Remembering Bobby” was written before but revised after a close friend’s death. There’s also a story in this collection called “Wisdom” which, I’m almost embarrassed to say, upends the truth-vs-fiction ratio far more greatly than I’m generally comfortable with.
In “Artists and Janitors”, I really did spend a lot of time in “Walden Pond”, changed the name of a real-life infatuation into “Sasha”, and once actually took part in the same woodland retreat described in “The Elusive Wild Turkey”. The story “Nat Merril: Cosmic Private Eye” contains the briefest of glimpses into one of my favorite examples of letting non-fiction slide in here and there. At one point, the narrator wakes up baffled from a dream. His recently-departed girlfriend had returned and asked if he preferred women with plum-shaped behinds or pear-shaped behinds. He gamely answers “pear-shaped behinds”, having never given the matter any thought whatsoever before. She breaks down crying.
“I have a plum-shaped one!”
“You mean you don’t even know?!?”
This little aside has NOTHING to do with the story, which was completely made up. But I can still remember that one small-but-true interaction clear as day.
In the “Sam and Me” collection, I truly was dating a younger woman, as does the main character in the story “Kari Likes Old Guys”. I watched first-hand - but never got acquainted with - a man who I envisioned as the lead character in “Tough Guy”. And I borrowed the location I was living in while writing “Christmas on Beacon Hill”.
And truly, as far as real-life depictions in my fiction goes, that’s about it. Of the 90 stories presented in those six collections, all available on michaelaba.com, these above examples are about as much non-fiction as I’ve previously managed to capture.
But now I’ve written “These Stories Are True”. Non-fiction has been allowed to take over completely. I’ll be interested to discover how this year-long journey influences future forays into fiction-writing.
Maybe I’ll end up letting one of my lead characters - perhaps another one of those well-meaning idiots - find out for me.