Sari Botton | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4300 words)
I’ve been working on a few different book projects for years — okay, decades — without yet publishing. There are many, many reasons it’s been taking me so long, but one of them is that I keep vacillating between memoir and fiction.
In the early 90s I dabbled in MFA programs, focusing on fiction. What I began writing in those days was somewhat based on my own experiences, yet also very made-up.
Then in the mid-90s, after I dropped out of two different programs in succession, books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club appeared and sparked a memoir boom. As a reader I became a nonfiction junkie. As a writer, I switched gears, started publishing personal essays…and then spent a lot of time freaking out about upsetting people by writing the truth — or my version of it, anyway.
These days I go back and forth, working on both memoir and somewhat autobiographical fiction, and spend a lot of time debating the merits of each with other writers.
On Sunday, February 11th, I turned to two of my favorite authors, Elisa Albert and Emily Gould, for their take on this. I sat down with them at Rough Draft Bar and Books in Kingston, New York, for a conversation ranging from the choices around writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings, to the differences — mechanically-speaking and otherwise — between memoir and “autofiction.”
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Below you can listen to the audio — including Albert reading a passage from After Birth, and Gould reading a passage from Friendship, plus a Q&A with the audience.
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Sari Botton: Elsewhere, both of you have talked a lot about, and written about, writing fiction from your life. I’ve been intrigued, and I thought that other people would want to hear about this too. So, is there a difference in your mind, either one of you, between straight up fiction and fiction that does have autobiographical elements, and what would be the difference?
Elisa Albert: We could do like a one word answer on the count of three, yes, or no. I don’t think there’s a difference. I think it’s like a spectrum, you know? Like a continuum, if you will. We are all bound by the limits of consciousness such as it is. Unless we alter our consciousness, but even altered consciousness is consciousness. It exists, you know? I mean, I can’t get into the physics too deeply, but even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. Or the one you, the eternal you, the shared collective you.
Emily Gould: Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. No aliens are going to show up at the temp agency where Bev [a character in Friendship] is going to have her interview. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. This book is actually so made up. And it’s actually really frustrating sometimes when people are like, “Oh, so what was it like for you when …” [name of my best friend] “decided to have a baby after getting pregnant after a one night stand?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because that didn’t happen in my actual life.”
At the same time I want credit for being such an imaginative person, but then I look at any individual page of this book, and I’m like, well, yes, I did eat at that restaurant, and have basically that exact same interaction. But you know, then it became fictionalized. And we both have also written a lot of nonfiction, and think there is a shining line in my mind between the two forms.
Botton: You’ve both also written a fair amount of essay and memoir, and so people recognize certain things from your lives, which they can project on to your books, saying it’s totally just your life. But now you’re calling it a novel.
Albert: Change the names and there you go.
Botton: Right, exactly. But a lot of other novelists choose to completely invent worlds and that’s not what you’re doing, so it’s an interesting choice. Emily, I read something that you wrote about where the choice started. That you were having a hard time after writing a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever. That after that you were having a hard time writing in the first person. Do you want to talk a little bit about that shift?
Gould: Oh sure. Yeah. In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. It just started as a sort of thought exercise, and now this is something that I tell my students.
I’m teaching fiction now, and students come to me all the time and say things like, “I’m just so sick of myself. I’m sick of my perspective. I’m sick of all of my thoughts about everything. I’m sick of my themes. All of my fellow people in this workshop have heard the same story from me a thousand times already, and they’re sick of my shtick too. What can I do to break out of the aspects of me that I’m so bored with?” And I just tell them, “You’re stuck with you. I’m sorry.” They haven’t perfected head transplants yet, so we’re all stuck with ourselves.
But what you can do is just shift your lens. Try a new form even if it’s something that you’re really bad at. Draw a comic book even if you can’t draw at all. Switch point of view, like I did. Write a song or a poem about the stuff that you usually write about instead of just doing whatever it is that you usually do. It sounds so goofy, and 101, but it really works. You can pull the wool over your own eyes. You really can lie to yourself and trick your brain.
Even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. — Elisa Albert
Botton: So once you start writing about yourself, or write your story in the third person … although, Elisa, After Birth is in the first person, right?
Albert: Yeah. Because my first novel was in the third person, and I found it was the same thing anyway. Everybody still was kind of like, Oh, well, it’s just you, obviously.
Gould: Which is so weird because you didn’t die of brain cancer.
Albert: Right, I know. The narrator of my first book dies of a brain tumor at the end of the book, so I don’t know how that could be autobiographical. I mean, I think ultimately it’s a compliment. It has to be a compliment, you know? Because what people are saying when they’re sort of assuming those things or projecting, or whatever, is that you have created a world that is so visceral and immediate and convincing that oh, of course it’s you. You know? So you’ve done what you set out to do then. I mean, I wouldn’t want to write a book where people reading it would think, like, geez, this shit’s totally invented. You know?
And the other thing is a novel, anything you write, but a novel especially, just the scope of it, it has to be an obsession. So even if you’re obsessed with 17th century Germany, that’s your obsession, and there are deep-rooted ways in which that’s very autobiographical even though obviously you weren’t there in your current form. So whatever it is, it has to be an obsession. You can’t spend years working on something if you’re not obsessed. So even if it’s not about you, it is encompassing your deep need to think about, look at, explore something.
Botton: So then once you’ve started writing, either in the third or first person — but deciding that it’s fiction — how do you then take the elements of your life and make them into something that isn’t your life? That becomes another story, more than just your life? How do you make that leap? Or does it start with, like, I have this particular story I want to tell?
Albert: Lorrie Moore said in her amazing story, “How to Become a Writer,” which is in the second person, and is very autobiographical, that “it’s like recombinant DNA.” You change one little strand of something, and then watch how that ripples out. Then it’s a very different story suddenly. I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. That’s now where my obsession lies, so I’m going to use that. I don’t give a shit.
So that’s autobiographical. I mean, this person is not like me in many, many other ways, but I know that origin story, so I can make use of it. It would be wasteful otherwise. I would be wasting my energy. I’d be reinventing the wheel. I have a pretty deep identification as somebody who was raised in a really religious household. I’m not interested in reinventing that at this point. That’s not what I’m looking at. So that’s a given. I’m going to use that. That’s there. I’m fluent in that, you know?
Botton: That frees you, then, to create the other aspects of the story.
Albert: The things I’m kind of obsessed with looking at or turning over or flipping around or inverting or whatever, that’s what I’m going to spend these years doing. And I don’t have to then waste my energy on the other elements because, you know, maybe in a different book those elements might need tweaking, but yeah. It’s like butterfly wings, right? Like, tsunami on the other side of the globe because, like, one little movement here.
The narrator of After Birth — her mother is dead. My mother’s not dead. She has an unnecessary surgical birth that was like super inhumane and traumatic. That didn’t happen to me. She’s an academic. I’m not an academic. Whatever. But, see, then we get into this weird thing where I’m like, see! Whatever.
Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. ‘Friendship’ is actually so made up. — Emily Gould
Gould: I’m sure this is something that you guys definitely all already thought about before, but I find myself thinking about writing fiction sometimes in terms of almost like method acting a little bit. Like, you can take an emotional experience that you’ve had and transmute it into another form. I’ve never experienced a shattering romantic betrayal, which is one of the things that I write about in Friendship. Yet. But I have experienced betrayal on a deep level in a relationship, but just not, like fucking someone else. You know?
So I was able to use that emotional experience and turn it into something else, the same way that I imagine actors do. I don’t know. I’m a terrible actress, so I actually don’t know how that works. But that’s what people talk about in “The Actor Prepares,” which I totally read in drama class.
Botton: That’s so funny. An article came up in my world today, in my social media world, with a title like “Apply acting techniques to your writing.”
Albert: People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay?
Botton: That’s a good way of putting it. When I emailed you guys and was asking like, “Are we talking about autofiction?” Emily, you were like, “Well, I don’t write autofiction.” And then Chloe Caldwell [who had to bow out of the event] was like, “I write autofiction.” It’s a really hard thing to get a handle on. What exactly is autofiction? Emily, I know that you’re a big fan of Chris Kraus, and her stuff kind of falls into that category, maybe? So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about what it is and why it isn’t what you’re doing.
Gould: Well, I mean, the most straightforward, I think, contemporary example of autofiction that probably the most people in this room have read, just based on the bestseller list is Knausgård. Has anyone read any of those My Struggles? All of the struggles? Yeah, there were a lot of them. But what he does, I think, is — it’s just this amazingly super detailed tracking the movements of his own consciousness thing, but filling in the gaps in his memory with imaginative detail, I assume, and that’s what makes it a novel rather than a diary. So, for example, there’s a famous scene at the end of the first My Struggle volume that’s just this virtuosic scene where he is cleaning out his disaster alcoholic, hoarder, dead father’s house for days on end. Just like, you’re there. You are in the house, smelling the smells, moving the specific objects from room to room with him, like almost in real time, for as long as it takes. That, to me, is autofiction. That form. And that’s just so, so different from what either of us have done, even though we have written about characters who are our same ages who have our same hair colors.
Botton: I was also thinking about Lisa Halliday’s new book, Asymmetry.
Gould: Ooh, yeah, that one’s good.
Botton: It’s about a relationship with a Philip Roth-like character. That’s part of it. And the author did have a relationship with Philip Roth, and she was interviewed in the Times and she talks about how she uses the basic details from her life to just kind of set up the universe, and then she makes a story and works from there.
Albert: Well, then there’s the idea that, is there such a thing as nonfiction? You know, its arguable. Even if you’re trying to write a memoir, somebody else who was there might have a very different memoir.
Gould: I think there are formal distinctions that we just have to make. It’s like the difference between painting oils or painting watercolors or something? And for some reason that’s really important to me to draw those distinctions. And I also have incredibly strong feelings about “nonfiction” that is written without faith, you know? Like A Million Little Pieces-style stuff. That bugs me.
I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. — Elisa Albert
Albert: Well that was written as a novel.
Gould: Oh, but published as a memoir.
Gould: So then we’re also talking about market forces and marketing categories informing what gets called fiction and what gets nonfiction. But we don’t have to bring commerce into this room tonight.
Albert: Let’s not bring the market into this.
Gould: We can just keep this in the lofty realm of art for now.
Albert: But you know that old line about how if you say it’s a memoir, they’ll say you made it all up, and if you say it’s fiction, they’ll say every word is true.
Botton: I was just going to say that. Yeah, so then why does somebody write autofiction as opposed to a memoir? It’s so close.
Gould: It’s not. It’s totally different!
Botton: It is? Okay.
Gould: Yeah, like a memoir has all these imaginative story elements and structures, and autofiction is really about living inside someone else’s mind, no matter how boring it gets there. It’s really trying to just transport you into someone else’s consciousness, which to me is like a super fascinating, trippy experience.
Albert: Done well, it’s, like, the best.
Gould: It’s transcendent when it’s done well. When it’s done badly, of course, it’s as boring as being someone boring is. And that’s just a world away from what we do as memoirists. Which is so much to do with eliding the boring part of the story and getting into the propulsive part of the narrative. That’s the craft of memoir. Sorry that I’m like, Duh, Sari.
Botton: That’s okay. I’m here to learn. But I have writers in my studio who talk to me all the time about what to do with what their writing. They are writing stuff that feels like memoir, but they want to explore different outcomes. I’ve been sharing Michelle Tea’s The Black Wave with people. There’s magical realism in there. I just love the way she goes from stuff that is so recognizable to, like, she’s just out there in another world. And so, I can never specifically know what is the best way for anybody to go, and this is kind of what this conversation came out of. I’m really trying to always get a handle on what are the differences. And I guess for different writers, it’s different things.
In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. — Emily Gould
Once upon a time, everything was called a novel. There wasn’t the memoir category, and people wrote stories from their lives and called them novels, and so it got more confusing actually when the memoir genre got added. But I think for you, you’re very clearly writing fiction.
Albert: Well, I think I’d be out of material pretty quick. I mean, stories from our lives can be really interesting, and many of us have lived intense lives, but there’s only so much of it. Whereas, if you’re willing to sort of go off on little digressions and make up little details and see how that spins out, and bring your perspective to bear on things that are not your experience. Or try to inhabit somebody else’s perspective on something that maybe you have experienced, you have endless material. Then there’s just no end to it.
I think I would get bored. I mean, I write nonfiction sometimes, but it’s not as fun for me. It’s like a good muscle to exercise, but it’s like that playfulness, that kind of mischievous kind like, what can happen? What could I get away with? What if I push it this way?
Gould: Whereas, I feel like actually for me, nonfiction is where I started, and it’s my comfort zone, and fiction is a lot harder, and it comes a lot less easily. It is this arduous process whereas, it just is easier to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something memoiristic for me, at least. Whereas to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something fictional is just … My shitty first drafts of fiction are like so shitty. I think also there’s the hard, cold, horrible reality that just because something comes more easily to you doesn’t meant it’s good. God, that’s sad.
Botton: I mostly write nonfiction, memoir, essay. But I dabble in fiction. I started graduate school to write fiction. I published one short story on a website, which had autobiographical underpinnings, but also a lot of made up shit. But I started writing something like a year ago, and I was having so much fun doing it, but when I went back to it, I had to keep reminding myself — and it was also based on a character similar to me — but I had to keep reminding myself of the rules of this universe that this person lives in. That this person’s boyfriend is 18 years older and Italian. Having to orient myself again and again in this fictional world, I find hard. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t something worth putting more time and effort toward and trying harder at, but for me it’s like a harder exercise to remember the rules of the universe I’ve created. Do you ever run into that?
Albert: Sometimes. I mean, like, plot mostly. Just to be like, okay, this happened, this happened. I can sort of hang out in a voice for a long time, but then to just keep the facts straight. But that’s administrative stuff, you know? A couple index cards.
Gould: Yeah. Those aren’t structural things, so if you’re thinking of it like a physical project? Like if you’re building something, that’s more like — the rules of the universe stuff you can always straighten out at the end in the same way that if you’re renovating a house, you can fix up the door frames and the windows. I don’t know anything about this metaphor.
Albert: It’s like curtains.
Gould: I’m going to stop. Yeah, it’s like you’re going to put in furniture and decorate and the wall paper and stuff, and that’s like the fun stuff that you do at the end. Also, copy editors will do some of it for you. And good line editors. Friendship was written a long time ago in my life, and I had never been pregnant. And now I’ve been pregnant a bunch, and I think the character who gets pregnant in Friendship was pregnant in the first draft, like the draft that sold, for like 11 months. Like an elephant. And no one caught it. A copy editor caught it. It was like, oops. And all I had to do was change some details about the weather, and it was fine, you know?
But that’s the kind of thing that — if you get bogged down in that stuff in the first draft, you’re going to prevent yourself from ever moving forward.
People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay? — Elisa Albert
Botton: One of my obsessions that I’ve written a lot about, and interviewed people a lot about, and I’ve interviewed both of you about, is people getting pissed off at you for what you’ve written that has to do with them. And sometimes, when I’m working on memoir and afraid of people being mad at me, I think, All right, I’m just going to change my name. That’s one solution. The other is, All right, I’m totally going to fictionalize, and it will be more fun. But they’re still going to recognize themselves. Is this something that you run into or care about, or does fiction solve that?
Albert: I don’t think fiction solves it. People just tend to then pick out people who are not remotely related to them and be offended by stuff that they’re imagining might have something to do with them. I don’t tend to have a lot of people in my life who I need to protect that way. That’s been a long process, but I find it useful to have pretty honest relationships so that anyone I actually have in my life is a) not somebody I’m going to feel the need to fucking burn in literature, and b) not somebody who’s going to come at what I’m doing with a narcissistic vengeance. But that takes time, and not everybody has the luxury of narrowing down their intimate circle in such a way. But it’s served me pretty well so far.
Botton: I think, Emily, you’ve had a different experience, at least with memoir, yeah.
Gould: Well, yeah, there are definitely sacrifices involved in being honest always, for anyone. Not just writers, I think. And like Elisa, I think the list of people whose opinions I give a fuck about at all has been winnowed down over the course of my life from like, you know when I was in my 20s, it was like everyone. And now it’s just people I care about. So yeah, I think this has always been really hard for me, and it continues to be hard for me. I definitely don’t have all the answers about it at all, but like the tattoo on Sari’s arm says, there comes a point when it becomes harder for the flower to stay in the bud than it is to bloom. I’m paraphrasing her tattoo badly, sorry.
So, it’s like you choose between two different kinds of pain, right? It’s like the pain of keeping whatever it is inside versus the pain that you’re going contend with when you have to deal with the consequences of having written your story. And it’s a personal choice.
Botton: Incidentally, Emily was my tattoula. You know, like a doula. She went with me. She brought me gluten-free cookies so I wouldn’t faint.
Gould: It’s really important to eat before and after you get a tattoo.
Botton: And for those of you who can’t see, my tattoo, I recently learned, does not quote who I thought it did. So, yes. It’s that quote that you see on mugs and candles. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Usually it says it’s by Anaïs Nin, and it is very much not, which is fine.
Albert: Are you going to edit it on the tattoo?
Botton: I didn’t attribute.
Botton: It’s actually a woman [a playwright now] who was a publicist in California for an adult ed college in the 70s. She’d put that on a press release to encourage adults to go back to school. So, go back to school. That’s what we’re doing here. Yeah, so. I still like it.
Gould: Me too. It’s great!
Botton: It’s a good one, right?
Botton: And then I got cherry blossoms on my other arm, so we’re all blossomed out here. I actually interviewed that woman. One of these days I’ll write about it…
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Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different, and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot. She has taught at Columbia’s School of the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, and is currently Visiting Writer at Bennington College. She lives in upstate New York with her family.
Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, Friendship, and the forthcoming Perfect Tunes. With Ruth Curry, she runs Emily Books, which sells and publishes books by women as an imprint of Coffee House Press. She is a contributor to Bookforum and The Cut. She teaches writing in New York City, where she lives with her family.
Sari Botton is the Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.