Once upon a time, I began my writing life the way all writers did in my dinosaur days (the 80s) – as a fiction writer. Or that was what I thought I was. ‘What you’ve written is a diary,’ the publisher of my first book, a novel, informed me, but published it anyway. (It sold about 300 copies).
But I wanted to be a ‘serious writer’, which to my mind then meant my next book had to be absolutely, definitely, not about me. That collection of short stories, which did better than the diary-novel, featured gangsters and runaway teenagers and traumatised ex-combat-soldiers – of which I was none. Except that I knew all those people. They were my employers, friends, nightmarish acquaintances, boyfriends. And I was there too, albeit in disguise – that fighter’s girlfriend with a scar from an open-heart surgery just like mine; the male journalist who drank hard to forget his professional failures; the frustrated mother (I had no children then) forever nostalgic for her youthful friendship with a wild neighbour. I hid well this time.
This book, a notable reviewer wrote, is a voyeur’s song. It reads as if its author is peeping through a keyhole on all that fascinates her and is running an excited commentary. So I was found out. I gave up all pretences and followed my natural inclinations. My third book, a novel again, unashamedly fed off my personal frustrations at the time: my complicated relationship with my parents, my burnout via the flames of nightlife, my misguided search for romantic love. Like me, the protagonist was a Russian migrant who came of age in an Israeli province and escaped to Tel Aviv as soon as she was able. More people I knew invaded that book’s pages, some of them well-known Tel Aviv personalities. Readers kept asking stuff like: was the plumber fond of organising orgies actually the man who lived at… (Yes, he was.) And so my writing life went on. Until one day everything changed.
That one day arrived when I was already in my early thirties and now lived in Australia, writing in English. There I discovered what English-speaking countries had known for at least two decades, but Israel had been slow to discover – the creative nonfiction genre, and in particular its sub-genre, memoir.
Being the confessional writer I was, my transition to creative nonfiction was quick, natural, a homecoming. Annie Dillard, this genre’s legendary practitioner, used to say to her students that if fiction provides the consolations of the mask, creative nonfiction provides ‘the knowledge that what was underneath the mask, your own individual sensibility, that was… potentially of value.’ Generally, I agree. But in my fiction my masks were so flimsy that I entered creative nonfiction, and specifically memoir writing, already in touch with my sensibility. It was relatively easy to find the necessary distance from the difficult experiences I wrote about than it can be for the many beginning memoirists who now come to my writing classes. It’s not like I was particularly brilliant at analysing my life without sentimentality, but I’d already fought such battles within my fiction. And now, what a relief it was to simply tell the stories I wanted to tell without having to orchestrate a fictional masquerade. Although, it also wasn’t that simple.
In its own way, the memoir genre is a minefield, especially when it comes to ethics. The challenges of relying on an unreliable memory and the related difficulty of finding the tricky balance between so-called truth and imagination in the telling; the shame of exposing our flaws; and worse − the exposure of other people… As a memoirist, I’ve felt my responsibilities to be far heavier than when I wrote fiction. Sometimes this weight has paralysed me so that I’ve stopped writing altogether.
However, no paralysis lasted longer than several months, and eventually I realised that these struggles, as gruesome as they have been, actually invigorate me artistically, because they keep me on my toes. I learned to deepen my work by pouring all that blood and tears I’d spill during the writing process into my narratives instead of allowing them become narrative stoppers. In this way, my writer’s voice has turned more self-doubting, hesitant; a kind of Socratic voice that knows how much it doesn’t know. From an omnipotent maker of fiction I metamorphosed into a perpetually bewildered, questing, memoirist. I like myself better like that.
Still, I never feel as if I wasted my earlier writing years. From fiction I brought a knack for descriptive details, narrative tension, scenes and dialogue. But while these devices are useful, memoir liberates me from an intense reliance on all this machinery. As a memoirist, I feel I can tell large chunks of my stories more directly, because what matters most in good memoir writing is reflection, the analysis of what has happened. I cherish my ability to just speak my mind whenever it feels right. In fact, I cherish it so that for some years now I’ve been telling the world that I don’t miss writing fiction, not a bit.
That was a mask. The truth is more complicated. While I do prefer creative nonfiction both as a reader and a writer, good fiction still delights me. And terrifies me. Having not practiced it for so long, I lost faith in my imagination, and so for several years now I mostly ignored the fact that a novel has been lurking somewhere on the liminal border between my conscious and unconscious minds.
Recently, having just completed yet another book of creative nonfiction, I’ve decided to give this novel a try. It’s not that I’ve exhausted real life. Far from it. I have several more memoir-ish books in me. But I feel like taking a break from my beloved genre. Grand love affairs keep you burning but they also exhaust you. Right now, I feel like a time out from the ethical vigilance and intense loyalty to the facts that creative nonfiction requires.
Perhaps this is also why this novel – initially conceived as yet another thinly disguised memoir; a story that for several legal and ethical reasons I cannot explicitly admit as true – recently has been changing its shape. In my plotting, I keep departing further and further from my life. At the moment, I crave what I’ve rarely craved in the past – the freedom of invention. I yearn to spread the wings of my imagination, to see if I’m still able to fly.
I know that without the weight of memoir’s responsibilities my novel might end up too flighty. But perhaps this is what I need now. Memoir writing demands of me so much emotional effort that to re-fill my energy I might need temporarily to retreat into lightness, create a playful space for myself. Or am I simply kidding myself, conveniently ignoring the fact that such a space, like any fairground, is always difficult to construct? Can I hope, then, that the novel will be deepened by all that I’ve learned during my years as a creative nonfiction writer, that I’ll return to fiction a bit wiser, less omnipotent, more reflective? That all remains to be seen.
A version of this post was previously published in Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books magazine