Cedar Street Times guest column
by Diana Y. Paul, Carmel Valley, CA
I had always wanted to write a work of fiction. Instead, I wrote books on Buddhist thought and history while teaching courses in Buddhism as a Stanford professor. When I left the world of academia for the business world of Silicon Valley, my dream to be a novelist was once again placed on hold… but no longer.
I had to think about what makes a great story: memoir or fiction.
A story requires an arc—a beginning, middle, and end driven by a character who moves through the conflict and plot with drama at a fast enough pace that will sustain the reader’s attention. While I looked at childhood scenes I had written from as far back as I could remember, I began to realize I was making the characters more riveting by imagining more exciting situations. At first I wasn’t conscious I was choosing fiction or memoir as the vehicle for the story.
A memoir is fundamentally nonfiction. That’s the implicit covenant with the reader, whom the author partly entices by declaring that this is really a true story that happened to him or her. Novelists, too, can choose to draw on their own experiences, and that of their friends, in order to create a world—a time and place—that is believable.
So, I leaped into my debut novel, Things Unsaid, imposing a narrative pattern on the scenes, and drawing upon the memories of growing up in the 60’s in Akron, Ohio. Half remembered events….memories of memories of memories.
I had begun moving into a different relationship with my past. Certainly not a memoir as the characters took on a life of their own and were invented as more conflicted, and more engaging. I started reshaping characters, making composites drawn from memory, imagination, and listening to friends talk about their families.
But turning life into fiction—what, then is truth? And memory is subjective too. Just as imagination is. Memory and imagination hold hands in truth-telling. I want my readers to recognize their own lives in the story I have written, to connect the dots between scenes, to complete the story from their own experiences.
Things Unsaidis about choosing between the family you grew up in and the new family you create yourself; between dying parents’ needs and adolescent children’s needs; between Catholicism and guilt, and Buddhism and karma. I grew up Catholic but later embraced Buddhism. Without consciously searching, I had discovered the novel’s core dilemma, the double-bind, and my characters would be wrapped around that.
Fiction requires a resolution, at least a partial one. Memoir does not. As my characters became more fictionalized, each of their problems was resolved, at least partially, in the end. Characters I initially thought were rather close to home became characters that surprised me with barely recognizable traits. Breathing life into these characters meant imagining, reimagining, and rewriting scenes. I had to say goodbye to some characters. That was hard.
Things Unsaid hopefully achieves insight into human behavior—combining both the self-disclosing associated with memoir and the self-disguising associated with fiction. The boundaries are blurred. Memoir means “memory” and novel means “new”-but a compelling narrative, in my opinion, always has both.
Excerpt from Things Unsaid, Chapter: “Diva on Tape”, p. 23
Aida had pretended to like Akron. Their home—a white Dutch Colonial clapboard with green shutters, a screened-in porch, and a solarium surrounded by dogwoods—was the standout on the block. Perhaps that was her consolation prize. She was so proud of the dogwood trees framing the solarium that she’d had custom draperies embroidered with their blossoms. She never replaced them. They eventually faded until the dogwood blossoms were virtually obliterated, just weathered white blotches on washed-out blue linen. Those curtains now hung in their apartment at SafeHarbour.
That house had only one bathroom—huge, but impractical. Over the years, there were bathroom fights between Jules and her brother. One fight was so bad that when Andrew blocked the door, Jules threw up on the floor in front of her brother, some chunks spraying all over him. Aida never had been able to understand what Jules was thinking. So opaque. Not like Joanne. Andrew was somewhere in between, but a mother knows most of the time what her son is thinking.
That morning, before her little Julia’s first big day in kindergarten, Aida had struggled to help her get dressed in her brand-new white starched blouse with a Peter Pan collar and navy-blue pleated skirt. How that kid hated to get dressed. The school uniform would be a blessing. No arguments or decisions about what to wear. Julia stiffly walked into the classroom with her, trying to hold her hand. It was so tiring, Aida kept dropping it: such a sweaty little hand, soft and spongy, almost boneless.
Diana Y. Paul was born in Akron, Ohio and is a graduate of Northwestern University, with a degree in both psychology and philosophy, and of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a PhD in Buddhist studies. She is the author of three books on Buddhism, one of which has been translated into Japanese and German (Women in Buddhism, University of California Press). Her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and she is currently working on a second novel, A Perfect Match. She lives in Carmel, CA with her husband, Doug, and two cats, Neko and Mao. Diana and Doug love to visit their adult daughter, son, and two little grandchildren. Things Unsaid (She Writes Press, October 2015) is her debut novel and is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
To learn more about her and her work, visit her websites at http://www.dianaypaul.com or http://www.unhealedwound.com (blog) or follow her on Twitter: @DianaPaul10.