Hybrid Genre, Broken Rules

MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE, as you know, is a true story—or more accurately, it is a true set of stories. It is, therefore, a memoir. It’s not a pure-bred memoir, though, because lots of fiction is stirred into the mix. You’re not supposed to do that in memoirs, but I did it anyway, and in this post I am going to tell you why.

The publisher calls MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE a “Fictional Memoir,” which is a description that I like. The book is more true than false, but it’s chock full of little lies. I imagine that puts it in the category of “hybrid genre,” which is a thing, and (as I learned) one that big publishing houses are not wild about. That’s ok.  Keeps a girl humble.

Here are the 3 reasons that I combined fact with fiction in this book:

1. I fudge the truth to protect people’s privacy. Rather obvious, I imagine. This is why I changed most names except mine and the cat’s, and changed details of people’s families and such like. People who never asked to be written about are going to find themselves on these pages, and I feel like the least I can do is not throw everybody COMPLETELY under the bus. Right?

2. I’ve made things up to fill in the blanks. This is the reason for most of the fiction mixed in with literal memories in MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE. Keep in mind that the writing of this book took place over a 20-year period from 1996 through 2017, and during that time I may have sacrificed a few brain cells. There are so many things I don’t remember or never knew. You can’t, for example, write a book about 4 college students living together if you don’t remember one of your roommate’s majors. So, you make it up. And then you have to make up more things in order to make it believable. You end up with quite a web of fabrications. And? The story is still true. Another example is that I don’t remember where Dan went that summer, so I made up some adventures for him. Who cares? The point isn’t what happened while he was gone. The point is what happened to Nina when he came back. I don’t remember where the heck Sheila’s Grandma Friesen lived, so I put her in the retirement community. Sorry, Grandma. I don’t remember what Mean Tabitha really said that upset me so much the night Beth invited her over to dinner, but I remember how I felt about myself and how I felt about her. Etc, etc.

3. I use fiction to develop characters and situations. A conversation with Beth might be mostly or partly fictional because the point of the story is what we talked about and the conclusions we drew, not which exact words we used. The completely fictional segments of the book are there to illustrate a relationship, or a realization, or a dilemma, or dynamic that the combination of actual experience and my imperfect memory couldn’t provide me with. But something still needed to be said. So I made something up—drew my best picture where I didn’t have a photo.  And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones they are no matter how nicely you ask.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there is some type of debate going on about things like this in the memoir-writing world. I had no idea about this debate because I invest zero effort into discovering what current writing debates are. I just write the things that stand in front of me and won’t get out of the way.

The person who clued me in is someone I contacted to ask for a promotional statement to use on the back of the book. Imagine my surprise when she mentioned that the “mix of fact and fiction” in my book causes her concern because “these kinds of questions are ‘hot’ in memoir writing right now,” and she is unsure of where my “particular blend of these things” puts me “in the debate that’s out there.”

I am sure my eyes widened as I read. Debate? There’s a debate about this? Oh.

My next thought was that I’d better get busy with my friend Google and try to figure out what’s going on with the debate so that I can determine where I am in it. I mean, it’s “hot” and all, right? I wouldn’t want to be some clueless jungle dweller and find myself in the middle of a debate I know nothing about.

Or would I? I think I might.

I’m not going to change the book or retract my story no matter what any “hot debate” says, so maybe ignorance is bliss. This would be a particularly bad time for me to start second guessing my work. (This person was not suggesting that I should second guess anything. She was referencing something that I’m sure she thought I was already aware of, and, in true Diana form, I wasn’t.) I can investigate the “debate” later if I’m curious.  I’m not claiming that this book is a straight-up memoir anyway. I’m calling it a fictional memoir. If “hybrid genre” is a genre, then I guess I’m a little confused about why the debate in memoir writing. You can hybridize other genres but not these two? Yo no sé.

I bounced back and forth many times over the years on whether this book should be presented as a novel or a memoir.  I had finally settled on “novel” when the New York agent who tried to sell it in 2017 said something to the effect of, “This is a great book but why are you calling your memoir a novel?” Which was a good question because he was completely right.

So sit back and enjoy the ride. Crossing the lines between literary genres is just the beginning of the rules that are going to get broken.

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Gravity

like a planet with
no gravity
all of the deer have
fallen from my forests
and plummeted into
the sky
the eagles and butterflies have
flown free
oceans lift like
thunderheads and
my silent riverbeds
hold no fish
trees cling tight
among clouds of
dry leaves
cacti and sage
remain

First Rain

remember last year how we
watched it rain?
remember how we
ran outside the
first night we heard
drops hit the roof
and stood on the front porch
embraced
watching silver gold rivers
pour in stripes
to the ground?

we knew it was lucky,
that the year’s first rain
deserves recognition
I kissed you
the jungle around us
opened its thirsty mouth and
swallowed deep

remember how you
were tired,
achy in the middle?
I didn’t like the
new pallor under your skin
and I bought you
electrolytes for better
hydration

it was already too late then to
stop the storm
that was coming

remember the thunder
so close
the roof peak cringed and
the cats flicked their ears?
remember the lightning?
we hugged each other
tighter feigning fear

remember how you could
warm me then, when
the dampness made me cold?

water filled your body
and finally
everything stopped
remember me petting
your hair as you
fell asleep?

the rains have come again
the thunder, the lightning
disturbing the cats

we sit together
on the dark porch
in silence
watching little rivers
form at my feet,
trying to understand
this distance

“So What Made You Write The Book?”

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie is my new memoir that will be released this fall.  The most common question that I hear regarding it, other than “What’s it about?” is “So what made you write it?”  In this post I will answer both questions, and explain how what the book is about changed over the 20 years it has been with me.

The scene in “Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie” is the summer of 1991—the summer that 3 other college girls and I lived in our first apartment. I’m calling it a memoir because it is more truth than fiction, although there are splashes of imaginary details/events/conversations stirred into the batter. You will learn more about that in a future blog post.

I wrote the first version of this book in 1997, when the summer it describes was only 6 years in the past. The manuscript was about 40 typed pages, completely factual, and I called it “The Summer of the Riotous Walls.”  Why I wrote the original story is different than why I “wrote the book” that is going to be published in the fall.  Let me explain.

In 1997, I was 26 years old and married to my first husband. I had a job that required me to show up at a small tourist information center and wait for tourists who needed information. It wasn’t exactly a busy place. And what do you do when you have all day to stay put and wait? You think about things. And what do I do when I think about something for a while? Exacatmente.

I wrote “The Summer of the Riotous Walls” for the pure joy of it, for my own entertainment, and so that I wouldn’t forget anything about what I recognized as a pivotal summer in my life.  I was still in my 20s, mind you, but even then, I could tell that summer was one of those points of no return. Not because of something cataclysmic that happened, but because underlayers began to melt, laying fault lines for the giant chunks of iceberg that would break free later, reshaping the land and seascapes of what is me. I wanted to remember what we did, the things we said, what mattered, what hurt, how things came together and fell apart. Because that process is important. And necessary. Unless, perhaps, you never “leave home.”

And the title? We painted all over the interior walls. What started out as a fun idea (yes, we got the landlady’s permission) to decorate horribly disgusting walls turned into a disastrous riot of multicolored chaos. It went from cheerful and pretty to ugly and desperate. Or at least that’s the way I remember it.

I wrote that first version of the book for the same reason you take pictures—or for the same reason we took pictures before digital cameras and cell phones. Now, we take pictures to show off. We used to take pictures to remember. I wanted never to forget how I went from being the little girl in my first book, When the Roll is Called a Pyonder, to the adult I am. It didn’t all happen that summer, but that summer was the end of something and the beginning of something else.

And then I put the story away for 17 years. It was too short to be a book, but too long to be a short story. And nothing really happens in it—nothing dramatic like rapes, murders, house fires and terrorist attacks. Which is a shame, because I thought it was pretty good. But not that good. But still, a shame to have it just there on a sheaf of papers in a folder. But hey. It is what it is. Or isn’t.

Then, in 2014, my book When the Roll is Called a Pyonder was accepted for publication. I kind of couldn’t believe it, and I knew that if that book has something to say to the world, this one has more. They each speak more clearly when they speak together. I knew immediately that what I really have is a trilogy (yes, there is another one) that maps how the little girl from When the Roll turns into a woman like me. And that story about that summer in the apartment is the pivot point in the middle.

But it was going to take A LOT of work.

So, I pulled it out, typed those 40 pages into the computer and started working. Between 2014 and 2017 I added scene after scene. The focus of the book changed. It wasn’t about nutty girls painting on walls anymore. I realized that the only way to tell the story right would be to add scenes that are snapshots from my first visit to Costa Rica. Yes, Costa Rica entered the book. I tried to keep it out because it complicated everything for me, but books don’t care how much they complicate your life or how hard they are for you to write.

It turned out that the book wanted to be about a lot more than the amusing antics of girls, although it is still built on them. All along, it wanted to be about the summer after I came back from my first visit to Costa Rica and was turned inside out by it in more ways than I had words to express. I kept waiting, that summer, to feel like the same self I was before and it wasn’t happening. The book wanted to be about breaking apart, connecting, and it wanted to be about expectations. Thus, the new title, Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie, is drawn from a line in the first chapter where I contemplate possibilities for my future.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie had to wait a long time for me because it’s not a book a 20-year-old can write. That’s not an insult to 20-year-olds, either. If I hadn’t written the (very entertaining) bones of it when I was 20, how could I have given it the rest of its body at 40? The 20-year-old has the adventures and takes the pictures. The 40-year-old pulls it together and tells what it means.

I needed this book desperately when I was the girl in the story, but I didn’t have it. I needed the permission, the forbearance, and the open ended questions.  Now, I have it to give.

 

*  * * * *

Do you have a question about the book?  Ask me, and I will answer (or address) it in a future blog post.