I wasn’t shocked when James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be a falsification of the facts of his life. It didn’t surprise me because I hadn’t believed much about the book in the first place. Why? Because the writer right away failed one of the most basic of storytelling tests: Are these events even plausible? Frey’s book, in fact, was so riddled with such over-the-top events and
unlikely coincidences that I almost immediately lost interest, as we all do when we start to understand we’re being lied to. And this test of our story’s credibility – it is maybe the most important of the three most basic rules — applies equally to all our stories, whether we’re writing them as fiction or memoir. The test is simple and it goes like this:
Does this correlate to my intuition about reality?
Truth As Bedrock
Our ability to establish immediate trust with our readers may be our most
important job as storytellers: when we set out to write a memoir the form all
but demands that we offer proof so our readers believe us. This asks us to tell
what may be a difficult story as bravely and honestly as we’re able and to
persevere even when even when this truth is difficult.
For our readers to really believe us, we must do more than simply
asserting that what we’re saying is factual. The proof they will require is had
when we get them to share the dream of this story with us, essentially using
their minds to dream this same story with us.
This is why we show our stories unfolding instead of simply recounting
their events in what usually turns out to a distant voice, one far removed the
the story as it’s actually happening. To get our readers to experience our stories
with us. To do this we use all the same tools the good storyteller has at hand
to convince us of a tale’s veracity.
But first we must get our readers engaged enough to keep on reading.
How is this best accomplished? We involve our readers by using the following
The three elements necessary to story’s being convincing are simple to
remember, the first being the one James Frey couldn’t come up with, at least
for me: Do these character and their actions correlate to our intuition about reality,
that is, are they drawn realistically enough for me to believe in them?
Secondly, do they elicit this reader’s sympathy? Thirdly, can the reader
empathize with these characters, that is, if they are difficult people, can we at
least feel with them to the point where we can understand why they’ve acted
as they have?
Sympathy, empathy, and a correlation to our intuition about reality: these
elements are important to every memoirist. We’re trying to get our readers to
dream the same dream with us and any break in these bones will immediately
awaken them to the fact that this is just some story they’re being told whose
facts may not sound believable.
As memoirists we use the same techniques the writer of fiction does in order
to offer dramatic proof that our stories are true. Two techniques allow the
story to be shown, instead of told, which is what allows narrative time to
transpire all around the reader, demanding this involvement.
You will write scenes and you’ll write the summary of scenes, as it is only in
dramatizing our stories’ events that the writer has the opportunity to make
our characters and the actions they participate in look and sound and feel
And this is why we must all take the trouble our story’s scenes to play
out before the witness of the senses in order for the narrative dream to take
over. We write our scenes to be witnessed by the reader’s senses in order for
them to be convincing. The first person who much be convinced of the truth
of our stories is actually the writer herself.
Fact Merging Into Fiction
The Wrong Dog Dream is the title of the book of nonfiction I am just finished:
this final piece of a three part memoir will be published in the spring of 2013.
I use pieces of my book here to illustrate the difference between writing
scene and summary of scene, as this is technical and is often confusing. We need
to get at the ways these techniques differ and the ways in which they are the
same in order to use each most effectively.
My book is centers on our two dogs, the first being the purebred
English Springer Spaniel my husband and I got when we moved East. Our
second dog is the mutt we rescued from a shelter four days after our first dog
died tragically in boarding. This second dog, who was clearly the wrong dog in
so many ways came home with us to California and is clearly now the dog of
The Narrative Dream
My book is nonfiction in that all its events factually occurred, most of them
happening in more or less the way I’ve said they did. I use the story to
illustrate themes that concern me, particularly how our animals work to unite
a family, as these bonds — in a changing world — are some of the strongest ties
I have an excellent memory for scene and a good ear for dialogue. I
keep a daybook to remind myself of dates and names, but I write out of the
narrative dream itself, essentially revisiting its scenes in my imagination and
bringing all the vivid details back.
Here’s the dream the title of my book is based on. I offer it here to
show how dreams are perhaps our purest forms of fiction.
Someone in my family dreamed it — no one now remembers who. The dream stems
from something that happened when we were living in the East, and so begins in
what feels solidly fact-based and actual:
We’re just back from a visit to Berkeley, are stopping by the vet’s to pick
our dog up from boarding. We’re all there – my husband, my daughter, my son,
and me, all in that state of high alert known as hypervigilance, as we’re watching the
door in the back of the waiting room. This is where the tech will appear, bringing
our dog to us, in just another little minute.
But here the dreamscape warps, time tilts and everything starts to take too
long: door opening, family standing, brought into slo-mo unison by their crazy love
for this dog, an English Springer Spaniel named Whistler.
Now – as the dog is being led by the tech across the broad expanse of the
tiled floor — the dreamer begins to get that something’s a little off, that the two keep
coming but remain very far away, that this family’s too loud, everyone saying false
and scripted things — Hey, boy! there you are! we missed you, buddy! come on! come here!
good boy! like they are all repeating lines of cartoon dialogue.
Because this is not our dog: it only looks like him, a likeness in both
appearance and behavior so uncanny that even the dog himself seems fooled, as
this dog-who-is-not-our-dog comes wagging his no-tail rump at us, moving toward
the strange family that now stands like a group of statues.
Only the dreamer notices what no one else yet sees: this dog’s a ringer! and
even knows — with a dreamer’s spacious overview — how this mix-up came to be, that
two lookalike dogs, so similar they might be clones, have been switched in the back
This is the wrong dog, the dreamer says aloud to the tech. Our real dog’s the one
in back, but the dreamer is frozen and can’t seem to get the words out and tries
again to speak to the tech, who keeps leading this dog-who-is-not-our-dog across the
So now the dreamer’s saying it more and more urgently, Wrong dog! wrong
dog! but locked together in the paralysis of sleep, lips, teeth and tongue, all muscles
of the dreamer’s face, are stilled, words slurring as they’re said– wwwwrn daaaaaa!
wwwrrrnn daaaaaaa! – so no one hears and no one pays attention.
This scene offers direct testimony of the dreamer, who stands in as our
storyteller in taking on the job of getting the reader to participate in this scene
with her. Because the dream is written vividly it seems to cross into the
territory of truth. I believe this dream, though it isn’t actually the one that
someone originally dreamed.
Because I write both fiction and nonfiction, I know the task in both
fiction and memoir to be the same. I study the matter of narrative veracity in
my own work, as well as the work of others in the year-long workshop I run
through the writers’ community of Fishtrap.
We study the best ways to tell the story that seems to be presenting
itself in terms of the three T’s (Time, Tense, Tone) and the three P’s (Person,
Point-of-view, Perspective). Change one of these structural elements and you’ll
immediately change the story in small but very important ways.
We figure out how our stories want to plot themselves, plot being the
word we use to describe a book length’s work organizational principles, that
is, the order in which the stories scenes are presented.
We work to show the story directly in SCENE or – if concision is
required — we show a SUMMARY of scene to get at a sense of the habitual
nature of so much of a story’s narrative time.
SCENE IN SUMMARY
Because the book centers around our animals, I use the two cats to show how
our oldest son’s house was (barely) functioning right after he and his wife
brought their twins home from the hospital to join their three year old. What
you find here is not one specific scene but a summary of several scenes in
which the hours of that one holiday were very much alike day to day.
Sean and Heida have two cats, but these are almost only tangentially their cats, in
that they seem to belong as much to other people on their street. The first is called
Molly, the other is one of those nameless Volunteer Cats, who’s called the Black
One or Sweetie, and who may eat at their house but also be fed by others in the
neighborhood, who probably call her something else. It was right after the twins
came home from the hospital that Sean’s declared their Pet Free Zone, and threw
both cats out.
These are Outside Cats, Sean said, from now on.
So now they lived outside, which is find as the weather’s mild in Berkeley
except the Outside Cats didn’t exactly seem to know it or they did know it, but
would then forget.
If they came in they’d start screaming immediately, as if the house was now
strange to them, and Sean would appear from wherever he was, helping Heida with
the babies, or trying to get Hazel to be, and throw them out.
This is a Pet Free Zone, he’d tell us. The cats are to stay outside. Once
outside, the cats sat on the window sill under the cover of the front porch and
One of those visiting and it was the holidays and the new babies had arrived
so there were always just so many people visiting, would hear the cats crying and,
thinking they wanted to be inside, since it was raining, would go to the door to let
them in. They’d dash inside, then see the house completely over crowded with all
these random people and baby equipment and Christmas tree and presents and
scream to be let out again.
Upstairs Sean hears the cats being let inside and runs halfway down the
stairs to issue the dictum, once again, telling the new arrivals: They’re Outside
Cats, then goes back upstairs to help again.
A moment later another member of the Grandparents’ Committee, and –
this being Berkeley there are TEN of us — arrives and, without knowing the new
rules, lets the mewling cats back again, while Sean, upstairs, yells down the stairs,
Will someone down there please keep them out!
As we find out later, Heida, who hasn’t slept, is beside herself over the cats
going in and out, as whenever a cat comes in and cries her breast milk comes
The story, which I’ve told as I remember it, doesn’t happen to be
entirely true, though didn’t write it to perpetrate a falsehood. Sean has since
told me their tabby cat, Molly moved out of the house of her own volition
when Sean and Heida brought their first baby home from the hospital. When
he and Heida began feeding Molly on the front porch the cat they call Black
One simply joined her.
Those cats still sit on the outside sill of our kids’ living room window as
have for years, still crying – when people are over – as if they’d like to come
This scene below offers a piece of the Wrong Dog story in the first person
present tense, used to create the sense of one very specific moment in which a
major decision is reached.
Because the reader can see and hear this sense as it’s unfolding, he or
she can understand how it was that my husband and I ended up getting a dog
almost immediately after our Springer died, in that most folks will not only
feel sympathy, they’ll also empathize.
I think I felt the need to write the scene because I found its events
unlikely, that people as reasonable as my husband and I usually are would
behave as irrationally as we did, but the loss of our dog was in many ways a
world shattering event and you don’t know how you’ll react in crisis.
Saturday, early afternoon. Hearing my husband on the stairs I quickly click away
from the site where I’ve been staring at the hypothetical dogs. I’m guessing he’s
coming upstairs to remind me to eat lunch.
Look what I found, holding a sheet of paper out to me.
I drag my eyes from the ghost dogs on the mesmorizing screen to glance at
what Jack’s holding out to me: a soggy sheet of heavily inked typing paper that’s
printed with the still-wet image of smiling black puppy. Tongue lolling, starburst of
white on his chest, pup standing tall on long straight hindlegs, peering out over the
top of a yellow plastic laundry basket. This is a dog that looks so little like an
English Springer Spaniel that it might be a different species.
What is it? I ask.
What they have so much of around here, Jack says. Greyhound, obviously, a
little border collie. Maybe a dash of Lab?
The puppy just looks ungainly, head narrow enough to call arrow-shaped,
thin face dominated by a nose so long it looks a little ridiculous, those negligible
He looks intelligent, Jack says.
You think? I say.
Do you like him? Jack says.
Fourteen weeks, Jack goes on. Last of a litter of four born in the shelter, his
mom dropped off pregnant there — someone’s just adopted her so now he’s there
all alone. And get this, he’s only a few miles away, down past of the turnoff on 522
at the Morgan Country Humane Society.
I’m now staring opening at Jack. Let me get this straight, I say, you are
seriously considering our going out to adopt this dog?
He’s only a few minute away, Jack says. How would it hurt to drop in to
have a casual little visit with him?
Jack, I say, we’re not well enough to drop in for a casual visit with some
puppy in some shelter. Our dog died just four days ago, we’re still traumatized! Our
judgement is impaired, this is exactly why they tell you No Major Changes.
My kids’ father is a psychoanalyst. No Major Changes is what he’s always said,
No Major Changes being what all Helping Professionals will tell you in a situation
But now as my husband face’s is settling imperceptibly, I see, jaw tightening
as it will whenever he feels challenged. He has just dug in, I realize, Jack’s being as
tired of The Helping Professionals as he is all the rest of The Experts.
I think we should look at him, Jack says very quietly
All right, I say, but if we go meet this dog we will be bringing him home
with us, you do realize?
It’s a beautiful spring day, Jack says, wildflowers out, great day for a hike in
the state park at Cacapon. All I’m saying is that it will not hurt us — along the way –
to drop in to check out this shelter.
All right, I say, but I need to wash my face.
He really is handsome, isn’t he? Jack says, showing me the page again.
I’d more call it cute, I say, to not become all overly articulate and critical, to
not say, Well he’s actually ill-proportioned, he looks awkward, legs too long and
spindly, also his eyes don’t seem to match, but I say none of this aloud. Jack has
obviously already fallen in love with this puppy and so cannot see what he really
I’ll need to do something about my hair, I say. I’ll need to change my
clothes. Can I have twenty minutes?
Sure, and while you’re at it I’ll go fill out the on-line application – they
suggest your doing it ahead of time, in case several parties are interested in the same
dog and ….
Several parties? I ask.
….and our application being already in will put us first in the electronic
queue. What at you laughing at?
I’m just thinking we might require some new word to explain this dog setup
in terms of pack heirarchy, in that he’s is the opposite of the pick of the litter, so
he’s — what — the runt? or we might call him Worst in Show?
I’d don’t know what you’re talking about, Jack says. This is objectively one
Sure he is, I say. But you realize the kids will be making some great big deal
of our getting a dog like this as it shows we’re so completely pathetic that we’ll fill
our square peg with any round hole?
So, my husband says.
Which does make us needy and desperate, you’ve got to admit. We’re as
bad as Chuck Miller’s dad stopping at the Safeway on his way home from Chuck’s
mom’s funeral and meeting that woman standing behind him in the check-out he
married two weeks later.
They’ll get over it, Jack says.
I hope these demonstrations of technique have been helpful in our ongoing
quest for the narrative truth.
Jane Vandenburgh is the author of two novels and two recent books on
nonfiction, her memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century, and her book
on the craft of writing a book-length narrative entitled Architecture of the Novel:
Plot, Story, and the Mechanics of Narrative Time