Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, my intention in writing AJ Jackson’s memoir was to stay true to her voice and to the goals she set for the book. There is one more truth we both dedicated ourselves to in our writing journey – the telling of the stories themselves.

Several steps went into the process of making sure the memoir remained truthful. After listening to AJ’s recorded stories and imagining them playing out like scenes in a movie, I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. If I needed more information or clarification, I consulted AJ. Organizing the stories came next. And when I thought the chapters were ready for proofing, AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. AJ then re-read the stories and give her input again. We repeated this cycle until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter. Even after everything seemed right and ready, AJ sometimes came back and said, “no, this isn’t quite right” or even, “this isn’t what happened at all.” Her memory and my imagination often got mixed up somewhere in the telling and re-telling of her stories.

Because of this process, portions of chapters didn’t pass inspection – couldn’t even be reworked – and had to be deleted. The following, taken from a chapter originally titled “Fools Rush In,” is one of my favorite stories we ended up cutting from the final manuscript:

            I once had two cases working at the same time that were, at first, as different as night and day. A bank had hired me to repo a vehicle, and a private party had hired me to investigate Mel, the father of their grandchild. Mel was up to no good and I needed to gather evidence so he could never get visitation rights with his daughter. Well, this repo and this private deal started intertwining. The same names kept popping up in both investigations. These were names associated with the local drug industry – and we’re not talking Walgreens. In the middle of all this complicated business, I went knocking on doors in the South Valley, handing out my business card, and asking people to give me a call if they saw or heard anything about Mel, my “long-lost nephew.”

            I decided to hit one more stucco-front business, the last one on the block, before I took a break. The mom-and-pop taco stand I’d passed a few minutes before would do just fine for lunch. Sitting in the shade of a turquoise umbrella in front of the taqueria, chugging a coke full of perfect cubes of ice sounded like heaven just about then. Even the cicadas complained about the heat.

            An old man dragged a rake across the rocks in front of the building. The landscaping was already pristine, not so much as a shadow out-of-place.

            “Looks good,” I said as I walked past the groundskeeper and headed for the front door. He stopped raking and squinted at me like I was crazy.

            When I stepped through the doorway, I knew why the guy had given me such a strange look. The inside of the place was empty, gutless, except for a card table, a handful of folding, metal chairs and the five goons who occupied them.

            “What’s going on here?” I blurted out. Two of the guys stood up. The others kept looking at the cards in their hands, smoking away, drinking their Dos Equis.

            “What are you doin’ here?” said one of the polite gentlemen with a hairnet on his head and a silver crucifix hanging down the front of his black t-shirt.

            Then my brain turned on. Take one manicured landscape outside, add shell of a business inside, plus scary – yet religious – goons, and I’ve got…trouble.

            “Sorry.” I backed up. “I must have made a wrong turn.”I went through the door, took a few nonchalant steps, and ran.

            The next day, a lady who lived across from this “business” called me. I had knocked on her door and given her my card. She was sorry, but she was too scared to give me any information, and “would you mind not coming by again?” Of course I didn’t mind. I had no intention of going back there.

            Two days later, the neighbor lady called me back. Somebody had broken out every window in her house, and “if you don’t mind, I’m just going to throw your card away, okay?”

            Not long after that, I got another call. “Lady, you stay out of my neighborhood,” a deep voice told me, “or you better be packin’ if you ever come back.” Another Dirty Harry, you-better-be-packing routine. It gets cornier every time I hear it.

            Well, I didn’t go back, thank you very much. I later learned that place was a money laundering business involving one of Albuquerque’s finest citizens. I ended up finding the repo I was looking for in a garage on the west side. And Mel ended up in prison on drug charges. I found enough evidence against him that when he got out, he only had supervised visitation with his child.

This story had potential and included elements of tension and humor. What was the problem, then? It just wasn’t true. The two cases mentioned in the first paragraph – though both real – weren’t the correct ones. And AJ didn’t find anyone in the empty building, so no goon actually confronted her. I had misunderstood and over-imagined the stories I heard and (because of these and other complications) this particular piece couldn’t be saved. If I had been writing a novel instead of a work of creative nonfiction, I would have left the scene in, expanded it and spiced it up, and had a lot more fun getting AJ out of her scary predicament.

This New Mountain uses all the elements of a fiction story – scenes, internal and external dialogue, tension, imagery, a well-developed main character – but because the stories are true (but read like fiction), the book is considered a piece of creative nonfiction. The process of keeping the integrity of the memoir intact was time-consuming but worth it to stay true to AJ and her life.

If you’ve read a good memoir lately, what did you like most about it?


1 thought on “Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

  1. Pingback: Writing the Memoir: Making Family Legends Fit (or Not) | Cate Macabe

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