On Making Things Up: Some True Stories About Writing My Novel
“I want you to believe every single word I say, but don’t be fooled—I’m using lies to convince you.”
behind-the-scenes look at being a first-time novelist.
What else am I going to write about but how I know and don’t know the world? I may not make things up in fiction, or tell the truth in nonfiction, but documentary or invented, it’s always been me at the centre of the will to put descriptions out into the world. I lie like all writers but I use my truths as I know them in order to do so. – Jenny Diski, On Gratitude
My mother hates my first novel.
Four years or so after I started it, around the time it went into copyediting, I emailed her a PDF. I was in the kitchen when she called. It feels like I was in the kitchen every time she called to tell me the page she was up to, what she’d just read, her voice an accusation. I was in the kitchen, crying, looking out the window at the waiter on the roof next door, rolling his cigarette; I was in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to whistle, interrupting to tell her—
I didn’t do anything wrong.
In a profile of Lorrie Moore I read in college, she says that her only really good piece of writing advice is Write something you’d never show your mother or father. I could never do that! she says her students say.
Lorrie was my MFA thesis advisor. I brought the start of two novels to our first meeting. I was halfway done with one, a lightly “experimental” and not-so-lightly autobiographical novel written mostly in titled fragments, almost prose poems, that had consumed me for most of graduate school. I had about sixty pages of the other, a story about two teenage girls set in the northern Michigan of my adolescence that people in my MFA workshops kept calling young adult. Lorrie generously read them both and suggested I pursue the story about the girls. The other one, it turned out, had absolutely no plot. After a flicker of despair at the thought of all the time I’d sunk into those fucking titles, I was excited. The girls were interesting. They scared me a little. I’d been cheating on my “real” novel with the girls for a long time.
Never, at any point in the writing, or even in the months after the book sold, did I show what I was working on to my mother. She asked. I changed the subject. I said I was working. I made it seem like there was hardly a novel at all. It didn’t occur to me that I was protecting myself from her reaction, though later she would accuse me of that, and I would think maybe she was right. But at the time, aside from my agent and editor, my teachers, my husband, people who were contractually obligated to help me, I never showed anyone my novel. It was private, and it wasn’t done. Probably, despite what my editor said, it would never really be published. I would show my mother when it was perfect. Maybe that was my rationale. I hope it was.
Lorrie never gave me that particular piece of writing advice. Perhaps it was obvious from what I’d written that I didn’t need it.
One thing my mother objects to the most is that my narrator’s mom drinks so much tea. Who else could it be? she says.
An incomplete list of what my mother thinks should be removed, for being either too true or too false, depending on which argument we are having: all the blondes, orgasm as motif, northern Michigan, the proper way to make a bed and clean a toilet owned by a stranger, the mother’s boy-slim hips, community college, money, the mother’s beauty, absences where fathers should be, wine in a box, that her mother is the person Cat loves the hardest.
Speaking of orgasms. There’s a scene early on in the novel, where Cat, the narrator, fifteen, masturbates and fails to climax. I can’t believe you wrote about the first time you masturbated, my mother said. I was in the kitchen, hands in soapy dishwater, listening to her through my headphones. Her voice so close it might as well have been coming from inside my brain. Aren’t you ashamed?
The scene had been difficult to write; I’d written multiple versions before settling on the one that made it into the book. These attempts flicked through my mind as my mother talked, layered on top of one another, like remembering something from your past and simultaneously remembering your sibling’s account of the same event, your neighbor’s. They all felt real, and I was ashamed.
Only later, hours after I hung up the phone, did it strike me—the scene my mother found so revealing had never occurred in my real life. Her assumption that what I’d written in Marlena could only be a transcription of my lived experience implied both that I did not have the skill to invent that scene whole cloth, and that she had some kind of omniscient insight into my most private moments. I was angry, in a dumb, childish way, for days. I still keep returning to this conversation, so intimate and, frankly, mortifying. It taught me about a mother’s relationship to her daughter’s experience, and how much I resent the idea that I couldn’t have made this novel up; it taught me about myself as a writer. Because didn’t I also feel a glimmer of embarrassed pride? Well, I remember thinking, that scene works.
But it’s true that I often start with a real memory, or a fragment of one. An image, a feeling, usually something that’s tender when I press on it, something that hurts. Shame. Write something you’d never show your mother and father. I guess this is a choice, though it feels like the opposite of that, like scratching a terrible itch. I write until it doesn’t itch anymore. Once I’ve started, it’s very hard to stop. I hear my mother, describing the ways my book is a violation, and the daughter part of me shatters, sees this as a failure that will change our relationship forever. The other part of me, the part of me that belongs to no one, is registering the burn marks on the stove, the spray of toast crumbs and coffee grounds, is thinking of my mother’s pride, the perfectly clean stoves in all the homes of my childhood, is hearing her and thinking the worst thing I could do is write this down, knowing, even as I think it, that I will, and when I do—here I am!—my voice will override hers again.
At every turn in the writing of my novel, I chose what was, to my mind, right for the book. I put my characters into compromising situations. I made them suffer. I made them worse. Cat, my narrator, inherited some of my qualities—a terrible eagerness to please, a taste for dirty martinis, a ferocious reading habit—only, in her form, those qualities were amplified, twisted. A taste for dirty martinis became a drinking problem on the verge of detonating. Her eagerness to please a passivity that I wouldn’t tolerate in myself. Cat, older in the novel than I am now, wanted to be a writer, but she didn’t know herself well enough to figure out how to tell her story. The novel itself would be, partially, that journey. She was very close to me—in that final way, perhaps most of all—and yet, she was not me.
I chose what was right for the book, or what I thought was right—which is different from choosing to protect yourself and the people you love, or to preserve the authenticity of lived experience. It’s more like, in building a table, deciding where to put a nail: an unemotional, practical choice, a matter of load-bearing, of proper construction. What will hold the most weight.
I don’t get it, my mother said. Did you just run out of creativity? Am I that interesting?
For example. I started this essay with the sentence: “My mother hates my first novel.” In that moment, my concern was to get your attention. I wanted you to read this essay instead of something else on the internet. I wanted you to stay. Is it strictly true? I have felt it to be so. It struck me as the right blend of intimate and dramatic and revealing; there was conflict in it; I trusted the formulation to grab you more than the perhaps comparatively truer, more mother-safe “My mother’s feelings about my novel are complicated,” or “I feel guilty about how my mother feels about my novel.”
I also knew that near the middle of the essay, I wanted to point out the function of that first sentence. I wanted to break down that choice, a reveal that would serve as the essay’s hinge, tipping it toward the conclusion. It was the idea of that construction that drove me to write the essay in the first place; I hoped it might demonstrate something difficult to articulate about writing as invention, as a manipulation of the stuff of reality into an illusion that’s as convincing, even more convincing, than the real thing.
Can you hear me trying to tell my mother that the hate sentence was the best thing I could come up with to suit my goal of making you listen? That this is how these decisions get made, that none of this gets anywhere near the truth of how I really feel about her?
Like my mother, Cat’s mother is witty, almost goofy, and beautiful; they share a few other biographical details. They resemble each other enough that, if you only knew my mother a little, by her appearance, her way of making jokes, you might make an assumption about who she is after reading Marlena. But Cat’s mother drinks too much; during the year the book is set, she’s going through a divorce. She is only in a handful of scenes, her actions viewed through Cat’s judgmental, teenage eyes. You can see why my mother is upset. How strange it must be to identify bits and pieces of yourself in a character who is not you, in a story that is not your own, a story, in this case, that is filtered through another character. For me, Cat’s mother was so clearly and specifically Cat’s mother that to confuse her with a real person was, well, confusing—but my mother saw her mostly as a distorted reflection.
Noo, my editor said, when I told her some of the things my mother wanted me to change. I asked my childhood best friend if she understood why my mother was so hurt. Yeah, they look alike, she said. But your mother never drove you anywhere.
Stop writing about me, my mother says. Just stop.
Here’s a true story about my mother.
When I was a teenager, my high school sent me to mandatory counseling after a cutting incident. I wasn’t allowed to go back to school until the counselor gave the okay. In the car outside the office, my mother told me not to tell the counselor anything about our family. Don’t talk about us, she said. It’s nobody’s business.
Sometimes I think that my desire to write about things people aren’t supposed to say was born right then and there.
(See, she did drive me places. And what if I told you that my best friend, who remembers my mom as never picking me up, was a year older than I was and had her own car and that I was always bumming rides from her? And what if I told you that when I was fifteen my family lived a solid twenty-five-minute drive from town, in the middle of nowhere, and that in addition to three biological kids younger than I was, my mom had three stepchildren who were around at least part of the time and a husband who wasn’t much help? Wouldn’t you agree that it’s fair to say, she drove me where she could?)
And if my desire to write was born right then and there, it feels important to mention that my mother did nothing but encourage me.
I used to think that writers should be free to write about anything, anyone, however they wanted. That was before the novel was finished, before it was anything, back when getting from the beginning to the end was what I wanted more than selling it, more than readers, more than for it to be good. In a craft class I took in grad school, I remember my teacher, David Lipsky, talking about John Updike’s famous thievery, the way his life leaked into everything he wrote. David pointed out one detail—a husband notices that the skin between his aging wife’s breasts is “crepey.” This, David thought, was going too far. I believe the detail was from a story published just before John Updike left his wife of many years for a younger woman. Too cruel. It seemed to me a good, true detail. I’d seen chests like that.
Often, I’ve heard writers and critics say fiction allows for a greater truth. I used to love this idea; it captured the exhilarating feeling I got when reading certain books, of the world coming gloriously into focus. But the idea has started to smell a little off to me lately, with its implication that there’s an emotional truth that is somehow superior to reality, and that writers have unique access to this higher realm. There are true stories, and there are invented stories. There are memoirs, which, though subjective, have an alliance to fact, and there are novels. As a novelist, I don’t deal in truth. I want you to believe every single word I say, but don’t be fooled—I’m using lies to convince you.
When I was in my early twenties, a close friend from adolescence died of, according to the high school rumor mill, complications related to substance abuse. I don’t know what happened exactly. We’d long grown apart.
The first time I published something about my friend’s death, I mentioned, to the people who asked what I was writing, that I was working on a novel inspired by what happened. Inspired by. What a stupid thing to say. What I meant was: I felt her loss profoundly, and I was urgently moved to write about girlhood because of it, the dangers lurking there, dangers that had not only stolen my friend’s life, but were threatening my sister too. Dangers I had somehow escaped. My novel is not the story of what happened to my friend, what happened to my sister, but it is a story about girls destroying themselves—why and how, the ways it might be possible to recover, and the ways it is not.
I was unprepared for what happens when a piece of writing goes viral. I got hundreds of friend requests on Facebook, hundreds of emails. I noticed that in the comments, which I read obsessively, someone had linked to my friend’s Facebook page. I made the publication take the link down, but how many people had connected her face with the article? For thousands of readers, what I’d said about my friend and our experiences growing up were all they’d ever know of her. That still seems horribly unfair.
It bothers me very much that this story I invented could, in the minds of some readers, even just one or two people, come to stand in for a real person’s real experience. I agree with my mother; it is a violation. I always knew that writers have power, but it took me a long time to realize that in getting published, I am a writer with power too.
By the time my mother read the book, it was essentially too late to make changes. I told her to submit a list, that I would need it soon; she didn’t. Later, she said she thought I knew what to change, and, several fights after that, I had what she hated about the book memorized. It hurts to look at the novel now. It’s become weaponized. I want the things I make to bring light, not pain, into the world. I had thought that a dark and difficult book, one about unrelentingly sad things, one that reflected my experience but was ultimately a product of my imagination, might still have that light, at least for the people who felt seen and heard by the story. I am not sure anymore. And yet, how can I regret writing it? It’s me.
The more I write, fiction or nonfiction, the less concerned I am with the ways people do or don’t associate my characters—almost always women very like me, narrating in the first person—with my actual self. My self is not up for grabs—confusing me with my narrator is a failure of your imagination, not mine. But that’s easy for me to say. I know exactly how much of myself I have not given away. I am the one behind the wheel.
Here’s another true story about my mother.
Late summer; I was cooking. My kitchen is small, too narrow for two people, with an awkward wall that blocks the sound from the rest of the apartment. I like to sing when I cook, and sometimes I take my laptop into the kitchen and balance it on top of the refrigerator, the country-girl bluegrass I still listen to turned up loud. On this particular day, someone had posted a picture of my galley online: the first picture of my book in the world. I sang as I cut vegetables, placed the steak onto a layer of hissing oil. Hands washed, waiting for the meat to rest, I pulled my laptop down to the counter and clicked idly on my Facebook page, noticing that someone had tagged me in another post.
On my mother’s page was a picture of the book and a corny photo of me. She announced that my novel would be published in the spring, along with all the accomplishments of my childhood that had led her to believe I would someday do great things. Trios of exclamation points. Put it on your must-read lists, she wrote, and dozens of her friends and family, the people I knew she worried would judge her for the contents of her daughter’s upsetting book, wrote that they would. At the end of her post, all in caps, my mother wrote: SO PROUD.
My mother is so proud of my first novel. It’s not a bad first sentence. I hope, the next time around, I can make it work.