Stories can be good …

“Memoir is the most subjective genre and has the least duty to reality; but it still has some. If this remaining restriction is still too much for you – if you’d like to add and invent important things – then you should be writing fiction instead.”

These words come from The Arvon Book of Lifewriting: Writing Biography, Autobiography and Memoir. I read them after reading not only the last post here – which pondered the potentially dangerous seductive appeal of stories – but also an article in The Guardian about a newly released book written by the psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience (and clients’ lifetimes of experiences), Grosz uses stories to explore a host of themes – not least that:

All change involves loss, and yet life itself is change – we are always giving up something for something else. And the point is that we lose ourselves when we try to dent those changes, when we deny that life entails loss.”

Grosz freely accepts that he has drawn inspiration from short story writers, and in the interview describes Dicken’s Scrooge as “a great story of psychological transformation”. As a mere student of – and reader of – short stories, I couldn’t help but think that there are few stories that aren’t, at least to some degree.

It’s a sweeping generalisation, of course, but – compared with most novels – that is often the point of the short story: lacking the space to accommodate complex plots or narrative arcs, the short story focuses not so much on what happens as the impact that it has. Not the slap in the face, but the sting and the red mark. (To pick a dramatic example.)

For Grosz, Stooge’s ghosts are effectively Scrooge’s psychoanalyst. And everyone’s story – if we are talking about memoir or autobiography – is at some level a ghost story. Our past lives on, of course, but we wrestle with our own ghosts when we grapple with it. And for all the Guardian article’s assertion that we find ourselves by truly telling our stories, I am left standing in a metaphorical courtroom somewhere saying “Your Honour, I object!”

Non-fiction may leave the writer free to use all the tricks and tools of fiction, but there’s a knotty problem beneath all their artifice and adornment: truly telling. In the particular example, there’s an immediate snag. Stooge’s isn’t just a ghost story, but a ghostwritten story. Scrooge was not its author; the honour goes to Charles Dickens.

Scrooge does not tell his true story: he’s a fictional character, narrating a tale. A cleverly crafted one, granted, but a story with a seductively happy end. If a miserly, grumpy old bugger like Scrooge can turn into a paragon, there’s a chance for all of us, eh? All’s well that ends well …

At this point, if you read our recent post, you may be thinking about the potentially dangerous allure of stories. On the one hand, there’s the compelling, credible story that leaves the reader almost quaking with recognition and empathy. And then there’s the truth. Which might be on the other hand. As Tyler Cowen (author of the TEDTalk to which our recent post responded) hasn’t been the only person to point out, stories are not lives. The latter are baggy, badly structured, poorly thought through. It’s bad enough sitting through your own verbatim, but anyone else’s would be interminable.

Stories are much snappier. They’re tidy. They have a point. Usually, you know what it was afterwards. More importantly, they leave things out. Vast swathes of things. There’s also the whole useful angle. All the craft in the world won’t save a story that has nothing to impart, or where the gulf between its world and the readers is simply too broad. As Samuel Johnson said in his seminal essay on Biography:

Between falsehood and useless truth there is little difference. As gold which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise.”

But there’s more than craft to truly telling our own stories. There’s the research. While the Grosz interview draws parallels between psychoanalysis and writing, I wondered if Grosz was aware that – for some potential writers of their own stories at least – he was overlooking someone. Himself.

Telling our own stories may help us. It may indeed be therapeutic. At least for the writer. For any reader other than the first (ie the author) the value may be debatable, and probably isn’t for the writer to determine. I was left thinking about the whole research angle.

To write a true story truly requires some digging. To model the tale into words – a distorting act all in itself – you must excavate its components, its facts. All those messy little inconvenient details that need to be shaped in between the title and the famous last words. And I couldn’t help but think that the degree to which you are willingness to ask – and answer – some probing questions was going to be important here.

Is it too cynical to think that a psychoanalyst is someone that people have turned to because they have wrestled with their own lives and not been able to tackle the questions that they need to answer? People whose ghosts didn’t play the part of the psychoanalyst, or who couldn’t really face their ghosts. People for whom the part of the psychoanalyst was played by … the psychoanalyst.

Diana Athill wrote of her own writing that

‘Therapeutic’ writing has a bad reputation, not as a remedial activity but as art. The book was marvellously therapeutic in that it free me absolutely from a sense of failure due to a painful experience in my early twenties. The writing uncovered and probed that experience, thereby giving me quite literally a new life.”

This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, lovely to know. I’m pleased for her. But she was an editorial director of a major publisher for fifty years. She worked closely with writers such as Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Simone de Beauvoir. Let’s just say she knew about writing. And, I dare say, about probing questions.

Aspiration is a fine thing, but you and I may not be in her league. Not as writers (although, frankly, she really is no slouch), but as questioners. We all need answers from time to time, but we’re not always able or willing to ask ourselves the questions that might provide them. Sometimes that needs someone else.

It’s partly a matter of intention. I’ll let Samuel Johnson have the last word:

He that speaks of himself has no motive to falshood or partiality except self-love, by which all have so often been betrayed, that all are on the watch against its artifices. He that writes an apology for a single action, to confute an accusation, or recommend himself to favour, is indeed always to be suspected of favouring his own cause; but he that sits down calmly and voluntarily to review his life for the admonition of posterity, or to amuse himself, and leaves this account unpublished, may be commonly presumed to tell truth, since falshood cannot appease his own mind, and fame will not be heard beneath the tomb.”

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