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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