“Another Shade of True”

Author Vivian Gornick1 once remarked memoir and nonfiction are literary artifacts—just as fiction—as they imply a coherent narrative self, and such entity doesn’t actually exist. Our real life experiences are random, simultaneous, illogical. If we wish to describe them, first of all we need to put them in sequence, create an order of sorts, grab needle and thread, sew pieces together. Choose a frame and a focus. Prune useless growths. Cast some props here and there to support fragile items. Connect segments, establish chronology to ultimately achieve readability. Life-as-it-happens isn’t directly relatable, unless we—so to speak—translate its pulse into icons. We are already interpreting whatever we begin to narrate. We are making it up, which is what fiction means—literally something ‘made’. Not purposely falsified, yet unavoidably altered by the mere act of joining separate, slippery scraps.

Memoir and nonfiction demand just the amount of spinning, weaving, composing that fiction requires, resulting in a very similar labor. Yet the building materials supposedly aren’t the same. If memoir isn’t a natural habitat (wood, creek, meadow, devoid of human interference) but some kind of construction, it’s assembled at least with real things. It involves actual facts about true individuals, while the events and people of which fiction is wrought are invented.

Not quite. First of all, in writing few inventions occur. Fictive narrative feeds on flesh and blood—authors dig into the reservoir of what they have seen, witnessed, felt, in a more or less direct manner. We could say the more indirect the more fictional, but it isn’t always the case. Elements of a fiction may be authentic and raw, yet so discombobulated, the result can pass for a fruit of the imagination. It’s a matter of scrambling pieces around, turning them over and over. Sometimes the author is aware of recycling personal items, sometimes the phenomenon is unconscious or it lies in-between—one way or the other, tapping from living sources is what gives fiction credibility and power.

On the other hand, memoir rarely splatters the whole truth, as for a sworn deposition in court. Privacy is a concern. Libel-related anxiety isn’t a strong deterrent (suing rarely occurs) yet most authors avoid exposing details of others’ lives. Not just by changing names—also altering significant data. To make real people unrecognizable major interventions are needed. They imply modifying genders, appearances, ages, jobs, nationalities, switching chronologies and locations. Then the challenge is to preserve whatever the story is about—to keep its backbone intact—in order to still call it nonfiction. I compare this cautious manipulation to the task of a translator rephrasing a joke or a proverb, which would make no sense in the target language if the original words were transcribed. She needs to figure out a different joke, wordplay, metaphor, often unrelated yet conveying the same resonance, implications, emotional halo. Such decisions take both daring and meticulous tuning. Paradoxically, accurate nonfiction needs some expert meddling with the truth. That is why it is creative. As for memoir, its sheer definition implies subjective license—it refers to personal recollections, not facts.


I like thinking of fiction and nonfiction as a continuum, as if they were a curtain hanging across a rod. Just one piece of fabric I can push entirely to the right, and call it fiction. To the left, and call it memoir. Or I can explore endless intermediate positions, the drape gathering and distending itself in multiple fashions. Still the same cloth—a matter of shaping the folds into different patterns.

Sometimes, I picture the curtain I had to make in emergency from my bedroom, when I had no fabric left but a bunch of gauze, the color of sunset. I had no choice but painstakingly superposing layers—quite a waste of energy and time. The result, though, surprised me with its array of possibilities—all the nuances of chiaroscuro I could obtain by lifting or lowering veils. To me labeling a story as fiction, or not, is a function of the number of strata I add or subtract—a ratio I might decide in advance, discover along the way, let impose itself. Also a consequence of how I pin, crumple, fold the layers, highlighting or shading different segments of what is beyond them. What I wish to describe, evoke or suggest—the view out of the window—doesn’t change. If I keep the blur to the minimum I’ll say I wrote memoir. If I allow more distortion I’ll say fiction. And it doesn’t matter, because what I’m trying to convey isn’t a sight. It’s a vision—its coherence independent from the chosen medium, either impressionistic brush strokes or detailed contour. I care for the vision to be as centered and tight as I can manage. Sometimes in order to reach its core I need long tweezers, thick gloves, or the kind of glasses you wear to stare at the sun.

Then, eventually, readers judge veracity or fictionality at their own discretion. They’ll firmly believe an author has lived through every page of a novel, or they will assume a genuine journal entry is a fake. I have often witnessed such discrepancy, of course based on readers’ experience. If they are familiar with a specific content—if they identify with a situation—they’ll tend to consider it factual, and the other way around. It also depends on proximity between authors and readers. Authors’ relatives, friends, acquaintances, are inclined to take both fiction and memoir as confessions, fully superimposing writer and writing.

Again it doesn’t matter. In a way everything becomes fiction—or should—as soon as ink meets paper. A memoir isn’t a way of acquiring personal data about authors. It could be left anonymous and perfectly achieve its scope, which is squeezing universal juice out of finite existences. And all fiction is a living body under some slight kind of disguise—still breathing.


1 in conversation with curator Louise Steiner. ALOUD (events series, Central Library of Los Angeles, CA, 5/26/2016).

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About Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Manzano Mountain, Indicia, Rappahannock, and Duende.