It’s a seductive idea, that there could be a ‘line in the sand’ marking an absolute transition from one thing to another. I suppose it’s the absoluteness that’s appealing in a world many have come to think of as murky and ambiguous. I was reminded of the power of that need for definition recently when we were interviewing new candidates for our writing group. We’re finishing Year Five since its birth, and the changes have been rife. Over this period the group has morphed into something so precisely perfect for the needs of its constituents, that it literally takes my breath away every time we meet. We’ve turned the writing group into an art form itself—something I sensed was happening a year ago as we got closer to the current formation, but now know to be a ‘fait accompli’.
Like all healthy organisms our writing group has changed continuously, adapting to the movement of participants in and out, as well as the burgeoning skills of the writers it supports. We’ve all learned so much and improved so inexorably that transition to a new state of being was a foregone conclusion. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the structure; the fact that we might all work in different genres at a given time and submit works of differing length, sometimes without linear progression, from one session to another. This concoction caused the librarian at the NY Society Library to label the group, ‘mixed’ (the only one of its kind) which quickly became ‘mixed-up’ in the minds of other writers in other groups.
It’s created a very fine filter when we’re searching for new members (or they’re searching for us), but reminds me of my former Yoga teacher’s criteria for participation in her classes, by invitation only. I was worried about being kicked out of the class as I was so new to that form of exercise, but it turned out our appropriateness was judged by fitness level, not familiarity with Yoga. That’s also true for our writing group. Membership is grounded in the commitment to the craft, not the specific output of the writer. I felt instinctively that was right five years ago when we began, but sometimes it takes experience to corroborate and reinforce certain truths. It’s been a pleasure to let the passion for writing define the curriculum.
But doesn’t that get messy when fiction and non-fiction are ‘mixed up’ together? Do memoirs, biographies, novels, personal essays and short stories have any clear way to work together? Can we, their authors, work together? Certainly we can, just as a yoga class of physically fit athletes can work together whether they know a ‘sun salutation’ from a ‘dead lift’.
This all came to me recently when I was talking in my head to characters I live with because their stories in my novels aren’t finished. In my hypnogogic state between waking and sleeping, I realized I no longer think much about or talk with the ones whose stories are done. Just like the ‘characters’ in my memoir, and especially the protagonist my grandmother, who lived with me every day from my early teens when she died to the completion of my memoir about her, I know I’m done when those people, fictitious or not, when our daily dialogue slips away in a comfortable, contented way. The memoir people are exactly like characters in my first novel once their story was told (whew!), but unlike the second which has grown into a sequel. Those characters are by my side and in my head still, reminding me of the memoir and my grandmother before her story was done.
So there it is; fact and fiction, truth and myth, all stirred up together in a wonderful recipe of writing. If someone wants a definitive line between genres, some nice, clean demarcation to balance on when writing or reading a story (or joining a writing group), let that line be determined by the writing itself. Because fact and fiction are so well blended they come out an inseparable amalgam of the truth any way you look at it. I said blended; not mixed-up; everything collaborating together seamlessly, reflecting the truth and fantasy of everything else.