When Truth is Not Enough: From Non-Fiction to Fiction
The decision seemed trivial. My husband and I were cleaning out my parent’s farmhouse after they died. Only the player piano was left, a big clumsy thing that wasn’t worth much. The caretaker, Phil, who lived at the end of the driveway, couldn’t find anyone who wanted it. We stood in room emptied of life. and stared. Finally, Phil said, “let’s burn it up.”
For a moment it seemed like a crazy idea. Who burns a piano? At the same time, it was an eminently practical solution. We helped Phil wrestle the piano into his truck and he took it around to the field behind the barn and torched it.
I got a tremendous response when I told this anecdote to friends at dinner parties. They slapped the table, roared with laughter at the thought of a burning piano, asked what we did with all the metal pieces – the pedals, the wires, and the motor that ran the player piano. They wanted stronger visual details when there were none. We hadn’t bothered to watch the blaze.
I tried and failed to write this incident up as a memoir piece. I will admit to a few wisps of embellishment in memoir but am committed to truth and not “truthiness.” The piano was such a ripe target for symbolism, but I couldn’t offer any.
This anecdote held the interest of family and friends who knew me and my parents and understood that the burnt piano was nothing more than a creative solution to a vexing problem. The problem was that this simple truth was not enough for my larger target audience of STRANGERS. I needed to add tension where there was none. It was time for FICTION, a new genre for me.
I toyed with various story lines – an uneasy relationship between mother and daughter with the burnt piano as a final catharsis, parents with a secret rural life, far removed from their staid suburban existence, a wild, drug-filled weekend with the burning piano a stand-in for a funeral pyre. But the larger story languished. The scene had seduced me. At each revision I added more visual details, a spray of sparks against the cobalt sunset (I have changed the sunset color many times) sharing shots of whiskey with the crusty caretaker, adding flecks of chaw to the whiskey, watching the fire from overturned buckets. The underlying tension, the “why” of the fire went nowhere, but I convinced myself that the tour-de-force of the scene affirmed my identity as a writer.
Then it hit me. I was getting in my own way. The back story needed a narrator more nuanced and complex than me and my casual decision. I struggled to turn “myself” into a person I would never be or never want to be, an angry and troubled daughter. I wrestled with writing a character entirely from my imagination, far from my serene childhood with supportive parents. When I began to feel uncomfortable this new-fangled daughter, I invited her into my office, sat her down, looked her in the eye and said, “Yes, go ahead, you can hate your mother. Just tell me why. Don’t be shy, let it out. This is fiction. Your truth can be ugly, disturbing. I can make you say whatever I want.”
I still tinker with the burning piano scene. The latest revision includes the strange “music” the piano makes as the wires pop off in the heat. But I have learned the accomplished writer must go beyond and beneath the scene, as compelling as it may be. If the truth of memoir is not enough, I need to embrace the unlimited canvas of fiction, learn to put truth aside and let my imagination rip.