“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. “
- Mark Twain
(So, OK, this is a couple months out of date now. I am slow, lazy writer. Can we just pretend it’s September?)
So I’m hanging out in the Haunted Bookstore in Iowa City tonight, it’s COLDcoldcoldcold (and windy) out. And I’m thinking all BIG THOUGHTS about Life and Truth and Stuff.
And I’m a tad miffed.
But it’s those fuckers at the other blogs, not you guys. I will personally vouch that you are all wonderful, witty, brilliant human beings and are very, very good in bed.
So yeah. Truth and comics. And Autobiographical comics, and…
Well, first off. We’re all using “Autobiographical” wrong, and I’d like us to stop, now, please.
The vast majority of comics that are labeled autobiographical are more correctly termed memoirs. And this is going to relate back to truth and comics, really, but for now I need to bitch about word choice.
Autobiography deals with the whole of a person’s life. Starts at birth, ends at right now. Memoir is about little chunks of life. “A memoir of my childhood.” “An Autobiography of my Existence.”
And there are a few genuine autobiographies. The Autobiography of MF Grimm that just slipped outta Vertigo was. But that’s an exception, and pretty much the only one that’s comin’ to mind.*
But, anyway, I’m a fan of autobiographical….
Ahpoop.. Now you got ME doing it. I’m a fan of memoir comics. Or not even that, specifically, I’m a fan of
Which was the best written comic I read last year. Except for maybe Japan as Viewed by 17 creators. And I also dig I Never Liked You and Late Bloomer and Street Code and the Sketchbook Diaries and the Bakers and It’s a Bird and Trondheim’s autobiographical stuff in Mome and Peepshow and American Splendor and My True Story and Jeffery Brown’s more recent shorter stuff and Ore Wa Mita (Even though I’ve never read it in English) and Blankets (I’m sensitive! Screw you guys!) and True Stories Swear to God (about 3/5ths of the time) and Sergio Aragone’s Solo and King Cat Comics and Fax From Sarajevo and I Love Led Zeppelin. To name twenty. Without even mentioning Maus.
More’n anything, I’m a fan of good comics. And a lot of ‘em are memoir or memoir’s kissin’ cousins. (I could throw in The Dreamer, It’s A Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, and Alias the Cat here…)
So I felt a little put off by the furor that built up round’ Heidi Macdonald’s Essay which was sort of a review of the Best American Comics 2007, sort of telling us that Jeff Smith and Jason rock, (Yes. Yes they do.) but mostly about the overabundance of memoir (dammit!) comics in the independent sector. It was called “Can Anyone Here Tell a Story.”
I don’t want to name names because I am trying to be a better person, but a lot of people got all pissy and were all “Worstest piece of writing evah” and a lot of the people at the Beat defended Heidi
To quote Dick Hyacinth:
[commenters took] Heidi MacDonald’s post as a rallying cry against…something or another.”
The whole thing was just a huge mess. But what bugs me is that nobody seemed to understand the process of writing memoir.
Which is perfectly understandable, ’cause the process isn’t intuitive at all. So I’ll put on my English Major hat try and explain there’s two points of view here: Reader and Writer.
As I see it, readers want two things from stories They want to be entertained. But they ALSO want to learn something, and they’re trusting that the writer is a pretty smart dude or gal, and has some interesting information to impart.
The writer side is a little more complicated. From a WRITER’S standpoint the “tools” used to craft memoir are the same as the tools used to craft fiction. And to write fiction you’re using scene, right? Jamming a certain number of characters in a certain location to accomplish a specific function in relation to the overall story.
Let’s suppose you’re cartooning a memoir called “The Day My Stupid Bitch Mother Let Mister Fuzzy Run Out in the Road and She Got Hit By a VW Bug and Died and My Childhood Was Ruined Forever.”
Now let’s FURTHER assume that TDMSBMLFROitRaSGHBaVWBaDaMCWRF is a piece of decent quality writing.
And, yeah, I might be stretching credibility here. There’s a reason. We’ll come back.
But here’s the thing. To write scenes effectively, you have to write ‘em in detail. “It was… y’know, sometime in february and mom was, ummm… bitching about some chores or something …. and then Mister Fuzzy pissed on the floor or something and blah blah blah and blah and THEN HE WAS DEAD FOREVER!”
Not gonna cut it.
The human memory, in most cases, just ain’t up to the task of preserving your personal history in enough detail to conjure effective scenes.
And even that memory we got is a very falible tool. One of my psych major buddies was doing research on the reliability of witnesses at crime scenes, and he said they were… OK. I forget exactly what he said. But not reliable.
Therefore, the desperate memoir writer/cartoonist is left with one recourse: Making Shit Up.
So you remember what dialog you can and make up the other 95%. Nail down the Where and When this happened, even if it you’re not exactly sure that’s QUITE where and when and jam in as many relevant details as you can, some of them drawn from memory, others created through the magic of MSU.
Now it’s not exactly the same as writing fiction. In fiction everything is based around the MSU principle, in memoir just most things are S you MU. But that’s not the only process similarity – Possibly not even the biggest one.
Memoir’s also based around unity of theme, and the way the story generally progresses is more-or-less-ish the same as in fiction does. It’s often more subtle but even “Mister Fluffy et. al” probably has a brake-screeching climax in there somewhere, and rising action and falling action and all that jazz.
Most importantly, if you’re writing memoir well you’re creating characters. And one of those characters is yourself.
Memoir isn’t about you, really. I mean it is, but you’re slave to the themes, the rising action/climax/falling action progression, all the stuff that makes life into story. So you only get to put in the parts of yourself that are story relevant. If the story is about Mister Fuzzy (RIP), the fact that you could make the loudest armpit farts in Mrs. Mckenna’s fourth grade class is not relevant. Probably. Or the fact that you once went skiing and broke your arm, or that you volunteer at the hospital every Sunday. The story doesn’t CARE you. At least that side of you. The story doesn’t CARE that you were voted class clown. The story doesn’t CARE about the time you tried to ski down Mt. Fuji and broke your ass-bone. horrible skier or you the spoon-feeder of AIDS patients. It’s you the character who’s important, and You-the-character needs to be placed in bowing, fawning service to the story.
So I’m sayin’ that writing memoir is not inherently self indulgent. It can be, and if it is it’s probably not done well.
But even in that case I’m not convinced that writing crappy, self-indulgent memoir is moreso of either than, say, writing crappy, self-indulgent fan-fiction about Optimus Prime having sex with all the Pokemon is alphabetical order.
Memoir is re-creating the truth sort of through the lens of fiction and…
We’re back to truth again.
All writing.. well, at least all decent writing, is about truth. Writing doesn’t have to, like, impart the meaning of life on it’s audience, but it needs to be at least touch on Something Bigger.There’s a lesson in it somewhere. “Hey! Look at this true thing that I have learned.”
And those lessons… Well, they come from the author’s life and experiences.
So I’d argue that the Important Elements… the Big Stuff… the Meat of any piece of writing is… well, kind of autobiographical. The only truth you can really vouch for is personal truth.
Back to Mr. Twain above. What’s he saying there? You’re writing. You’re telling the truth, you’re filtering the infinite insanities of real life into something… manageable, because you have something you need to get off your chest. It all starts in truth, with personal experiences. it all ENDS in truth, with imparting a small dollop of wisdom.
And the middle… Well, sometimes you need to tell a story to tell the truth.
* And I grant you these terms are not absolute, and that there’s a big ‘ol grey area hanging out between them.
Postcript: Here I’m linking to a memoir I wrote for Non-fiction writing. It’s kind of long and… well, I’m a non-fiction writer, see, which makes me not such a great memoir-writer. But there’s bits here I’m proud of, and it might serve to illustrate my points.