Shirley Kurtz on the Difference Between Writing Memoir and Fiction
Welcome today to Shirley Kurtz, another memoirist and Mennonite. Shirley and I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College (now university) and both of us have used our English majors as writers all our lives. Shirley, however, began writing books long ago and has published one memoir, several children’s books, and now a novel. I asked her to reflect on memoir v. fiction. She chose to do so by offering samples (in italics below) from her memoir, Growing Up Plain, and her new novel, Sticking Points.
Plain and True
by Shirley Kurtz
I stumbled upon Cynthia Rylant’s book at the public library, But I’ll Be Back Again, its jacket in bold pink, purple, yellow. I can do that, I thought. Say which boys, divulge the pathetic love life. Though my daddy’d never left us, hadn’t I known misery? Hasn’t every child? I pawed through my parents’ box of old photographs and found enough to go on, to drive my plot. Writing for young readers, upon these pictures I would hang my past.
Right here was proof. I wasn’t about to try for a genealogy bogged, exhaustive history. Just, people didn’t know certain insider details about plain-dressing religious sects. Folks deserved better—these persons whose idea of “Mennonite” was a Hollywood starlet with bangs sticking out of her prayer cap. Writing Growing Up Plain I wanted to set the record straight. “Plain” could be lots more severe than what you saw in movies. It could exhibit to the nth degree.
Still—and this was just as important—ways could be found to circumvent the strictures. This conniving involved agony and tedium and maybe even spiritual warfare.
I must have had at least as many waves in my hair as Jeanne Wert and the others. In the nighttime I’d set my waves with bobby pins and then put a hair net over top, to control the frizz. Also, for a while we all thought it stylish to wear our hair pulled tight back over our ears. I got sores behind my ears from them being jammed against my glasses.
Extra nuggets—poor constipated Mary H., Rita Zerbe’s short shorts, my Kool-Aid flood—came in useful, helped me firm up the picture. That’s a tricky part—convoluting the narrative just enough to roil it, not muddy things. And I knew I mustn’t skewer my family and friends. Not only would that have been low-down, I also would’ve been skewering myself. So kindness required a measure of guile, of magical thinking. I labored to speak truthfully.
Due to my obsessive-compulsive streak, this matter of honesty has always felt like a sorely inconvenient blister of obligation. Maybe others view their dexterity with words as a gift, even a right to be indulged, but I’m not that lucky. Younger, when freelancing articles for Mennonite church magazines, I seemed constitutionally incapable of producing the godly, uplifting personal-experience type material editors went for, and being phobic about relating accurately the quandaries this lack of spiritual prowess caused me, I sometimes turned to fictionalizing.
Rachel isn’t her real name, and I’m making some other things up too. But she is, indeed, a woman of conflicting passions. Torn in the flesh. Perhaps not the kind of person you’d expect to find reading her Bible religiously. The thing is, she promised. It happened on a Sunday a number of years ago. The minister at her church, at the conclusion of his fervid sermon on the devotional life, asked everybody to stand, everybody who could promise to read some Scripture daily, and how could Rachel way up front in the third row just sit there like a heathen? Was this minister smart or what?
These magazine articles—the husband was George—weren’t your typical fare, but the Gospel Herald snatched up a number. Lamentably, I crossed the line with a piece titled “Goats and Bulls and Some Fur that Flew”:
In Sunday school George had made a tipsy comment about religious rituals—sacrifice—and set Rachel off. She’d long stewed over the Abraham-and-Isaac incident in Genesis. Why would’ve God told Abraham to butcher and roast his child? Weren’t Abraham’s aborigine neighbors already offering baby sacrifices, not just their burnt specialties like lamb kidney, calf gall bladder, birds with wrung necks? Now, in Sunday school, George wasn’t only suggesting that pious deeds couldn’t absolve a person, George was also pronouncing God’s love as unconditional, saying that nothing people might do or think could make any difference.
And then Rachel spoke up. She just had to say it. “No kidneys! No pigeon heads! No gall bladders and kidneys! God didn’t want kidneys!”
Other class members cringed. Even after the bell rang, the fur was still flying.
The Gospel Herald editor wrote back, “Sorry, but I’m going to pass on this one. That’s because of what I assume will be my readers’ reactions to the Abraham-Isaac part of the story. I’m finding many of them not too ‘kind’ when it comes to commenting on Scripture.” Evidently the atonement question presented dangerous complexities. Writing for the audience, contributing to the official, institutional mouthpiece, had its limits. Even fudging, I couldn’t delve into things.
So you could say I had little option. If I wanted to go all out, pour my soul onto the page, what other recourse? My aversion to arid, inaccessible theological exegesis—and my ignorance—plus the compulsion about not lying—would mean a story swollen with homey description and inconsequential incidents (seemingly higgledy-piggledy, but in fact not), and featuring a made-up Anna instead of Rachel, a woman hung up on just about anything imaginable, and disastrously air-headed, and married to Wade.
Writing Sticking Points, frittering years on the novel, I baldly prevaricated. A novel allowed for scandal, ribaldry, shame, faithlessness—and I took plenty advantage. No memoirist possesses such liberty. Yet when I flip through the book now, it feels close enough to the truth.
Defeatedly Anna moved around the house putting away her purchases. The two jars of mayonnaise banged into the cupboard above the toaster. The can of black olives rolled onto a different shelf. The parsley flakes, vanilla, and olive oil noisily met their appointed spots. The bundle of toilet paper landed on the bottom staircase step in the living room to wait till she went upstairs later, and so did the shampoos with their contents listed in teeny tiny print. She thought for a second, then picked up the Pear Mango Passion and brought the label close to her nose. Cocamidopropyl betaine, phooh. Sodium laureth sulfate. Ammonium xylenesulfonate. Mightn’t these horrid-sounding compounds be brain-cell soluble and carcinogenic?
Or here: Concerned that maybe nobody had fed the cat, Anna leaned over the banister to call down to Wade. He was into another radio oldie now, drowning out Percy Sledge, doo doo doo-oo doo doo dooo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-oo-oo-oo, and collecting his lunch fixings, and she heard the crisper drawer of the fridge bang open and abruptly shut.
Uh-oh, she thought, no more raw peppers? Wade’s soulful yipping and whining broke off. Was he looking in the hutch? Uh-oh. Next thing, she heard him go charging down to the cellar, and what sounded like the potato crate dragging, like he’d accidentally hooked it with his foot in the underworld shadows and was trawling it along behind him on his way over to the canning shelves. “An-na!”
Conceivably, taking Anna’s part I stayed truer to life than I thought possible.
Does the theology come across? I hope so. Had I been attempting a memoir I couldn’t have dreamed up the scintillating teacher in Wade and Anna’s Sunday school class.
Susan turned and took the chalk from the blackboard ditch. She rubbed the holder end against her chin, deliberating. Alternately, she made tiny repetitive clockwise circles in front of her, like she was practicing her penmanship. She put the chalk back down. No fluttering, her mouth pooched the whole way out to China, she looked long and hard at Wade. “There is a hell. Unless you think it’s just a fundamentalist construct.” Fun-da-men-ta-list. She ground out the word in unhappy, tight bits.
And since Susan is a mere figment, I can’t be accused of maligning. I’ve never heard a mouthful like that from anybody at church—not from Jack, either, or Brenda, Peg, Jay, the rest.
So there you have it. Not every last writer can dredge up whole reams about the did-and-done ordeals and hijinks, faithfully rendered. The writer might manage a teeny segment of the past, but not a full-blown, serious memoir. Somebody too conflicted, or hamstrung by rectitude, can only do it obliquely.
Shirley seems to enjoy the relative freedom of novel writing. I can understand that. Certainly kindness and truth sometimes seem to be in conflict when writing memoir.
Shirley’s audience and editors seem to have expected a certain kind of narrative. What do you think of Shirley’s solution to that problem? Do you have any questions for Shirley? I’m sure she’ll be happy to respond. I really like her book title Growing Up Plain. I confess that I learned about the book because I was considering that title myself. Shirley got there first. Good for her!
Really enjoyed this! Memoir v. fiction is an intriguing topic. I admire anyone who can do both well. Fiction, it seems, can be more playful … more “out there” … and memoir requires a bit more diligence with truth (however it is defined by the author). I’m still reading Gilead by the gifted Marilynne Robinson … a novel that reads like memoir in many places … the minister who is dying and decides to write a letter to his young son. The book is divine because the insights are profound throughout and the voice of the minister is so memorable. At any rate, creativity can take authors in a variety of directions. Maybe we just have to trust our instincts on this one. Thanks to both of you … and nice to meet you Shirley Kurtz. –Daisy
Thanks, Daisy. Glad you enjoyed. I found it helpful too. I have a feeling that every memoirist gets to a point in his or her manuscript when it would be tempting to convert to fiction.
I too love the novel Giliead. Such a memorable story. So deeply affecting in its quietness.
Thanks for stopping by again. You always bring sunshine.
What a cool post! I really enjoyed the side-by-side of the writing styles — it actually reminded me of an anthology called “Confessions: Fact or Fiction?” edited by Herta Feely. It tries to do a similar thing by providing a collection of stories from various authors, some fiction and some memoir, and doesn’t tell the reader until the end of the book which ones are which genre.
Here’s her website if you’re interested: confessionsanthology.com