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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

An Interview from Story in Literary Fiction

with William H. Coles


Rebecca McClanahan
WHC
Thank you very much for talking to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. The website is designed to provide resources for writers of literary fiction so much of the conversation will be about fiction, memoir, and poetry, and how each fits into the writer’s craft.
To start, what do you see as the differences between memoir and fiction in terms of how the writer creates?
RM
For me, memoir is the more challenging of the two genres. I feel that fiction is circumscribed only by what the reader will believe, so my impulse while writing fiction is to entertain any number of possibilities as to what could happen to this character, any number of what-ifs. That is a very different approach from what I use in memoir and other forms of nonfiction. Memoir in particular requires a great deal of destruction on the part of the writer; that is, destruction of the text that is already there. When I’m writing a story, I don’t feel I have to destroy or dismantle anything . . . I’m building it from the ground up.
In memoir, however, so much depends on selection. Memoir is not a record of one’s life, not at all. Memoir is a selected and shaped text that attempts to find what I call the “weave” or the texture underneath the life, that thing that folds one’s life together. It might be an idea that has surfaced over and over, or an event you keep returning to. In writing memoir, what you’re trying to do is make meaning or shape out of the raw material of your life. You’re definitely not trying to recreate your life. That is impossible. My students get very upset when they feel they have failed to recreate their grandmother on the page; or they’ve not captured the essence of their hometown. Writing is not about capturing something; it is about making a text, and because writing is made of words it will never recreate or capture a human being, a place. All writing, I suppose, is a failure when you hold it up against the light of reality. Yet you can suggest the event, the passions, the obsessions of one’s life and try to find out what pattern of meaning they make. And hope that there will be something there that the reader will connect with.
WHC
How do you deal with the elements of truth?
RM
Truth and fact and accuracy?
WHC
Yes.
RM
I have to tell you, Bill, I am not real fond of that question. The reason I don’t like to talk about it is that questions of fact and truth have gotten a lot of press lately, while other important aspects of nonfiction have been overlooked. It’s why I don’t like the term “creative nonfiction.” I prefer the term “literary nonfiction” because when people hear “creative” attached to “nonfiction” they immediately go to the fact/truth/accuracy element and overlook the hundreds of ways in which nonfiction can be done in a creative way.

But to answer your question, there are a number of ways to strive for both accuracy and truth. A lot depends on what kind of text you’re making. When you’re looking back in time in memoir, you’re using memory as your main access. So of course there will be huge loops of experience that will be missing—that’s a given—and there may be loops of misunderstanding and inaccuracy. You weren’t wired when you were four, so, for instance, you will have to recreate a sense of the conversation you remember your grandparents having one night to the best of your ability. No one expects the conversation to be an accurate transcription....

READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW

An Interview from Story in Literary Fiction
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