The Story Is The Thing

Photo credit: Lucia Berlin

I’ve been thinking a lot about nonfiction vs. fiction. My stories always begin from an experience, a thread of conversation, a feeling I can’t quite pin down. The unresolved. The uncomfortable. The stuff of life. My life. I am not a magician who pulls coins from thin air, nor rabbits from hats. I find the fiction as I go. I bump up against a boundary and cut a hole in the wall and then shove a bookcase in front of it so none will be the wiser. This is where I find my writing going. A hybrid form.

The thing is, it’s nothing new.

At the start of this blog project, the universe answered back in mysterious, synchronistic waves. Out of nowhere, an old friend from art school (now a literary agent) sent me a book. An old hardcover book of short stories, A Manuel for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. I’ve carried it around like a bible ever since. I refer to it when my own writing feels stalled, when I’m looking for a way back in. Berlin is a masterful storyteller, a vivid painter, a prose poet with an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue. Lydia Davis says it better: “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading–using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”

The book is a work of fiction, but many of the stories are lifted straight from Berlin’s life. Others are entirely made up.

From the forward by Lydia Davis:

Lucia Berlin based many of her stories on events in her own life. One of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.”

Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”), the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s. Her son went on to say, “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished, and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”

Perhaps this is the answer to my navigational fatigue, to always remember the story is the thing. 

(Post 289 of 365)


4 thoughts on “The Story Is The Thing”

  1. Have to read her – never heard of her even! All wonderful advice. I think you mean “form” rather than “from” end of first graf. I was thinking you meant navigational fatigue with personal essays in terms of how much to share. With stories, definitely I agree with pulling from real life but changing whatever needs to be changed in service of the story. All this writing and talking about writing has me so giddy. Thanks for being a constant source of insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rachel! I’m not the best proofreader of my own work.

      You’re spot on–the navigational fatigue pertains mostly to essay writing, the boundaries of which sometimes leave me struggling for fresh ideas. My essays usually rely on narrative, so I’m using “story” broadly. The essay has to exist within the confines of the truth, and then is further confined by how much the writer is willing to share.

      This first week of Flash Nano has me back in the world of pure story. I’ve also begun to edit some short stories from September. They’re a blend of fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this. As far as the cure for navigational fatigue, I’m finding that working on multiple projects, both story and essay, allows me to feel less confined. The story is where I can breathe.

      (I edited this comment for clarity. Thank you for always deepening the conversation!)


  2. Sarah,
    Thanks for the book suggestion.
    Your writing is thought provoking, lyrical, and does something amazing: it inspires me to continue to hone my own craft.
    Best, C
    Writer + Editor

    Liked by 1 person

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