Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr: Lesson 16, Part one
In my essay, Autobiography and Fiction, my underlying argument, unstated, was that great fiction relies on, not the truth, not total autobiography, but instead “heightened reality.” Before discussing Harried Doerr’s journey toward story, publication and winner of The American Book Award, let’s look at a couple examples of this willingness to write fiction, close-to-the-bone.
Here's an example from James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues:”
“Yet, watching Creole's face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the
feeling that something had happened, something I hadn't heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant's warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn't get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.”
Why do I call this fiction “heightened reality”? or to put the q. another way, How does this quote fit the revelation of this first person character, his change in the journey of his conflict about his brother? Because the concrete details become more important than the stated conclusions. Baldwin selects these details to build tension but the details stand on their own. Baldwin tells the underbelly story, the story we never tell anyone and that all great stories deal with.
Do I know for certain that this is Baldwin’s experience? Of course not. But I’m certain he draws from his own life in key close-to-the-bone ways. I can hear that, feel that in the writing, no matter how fictionalized. You can search Baldwin’s history and you won’t find direct links, but you’ll surely find some.
The New York Times book review introduced us to Peter Pouncey who at age 67 wrote and published his first book entitled Rules for Old Men Waiting. Pouncey pulled together the thousand or so pages he’d begun stashing in a box in 1981 to produce a slender unpretentious book. See his profile in The New York Times. Do I think this is straight autobiography? Of course not. Here is Pouncey’s comment about the old man, MacIver, he’s created: “MacIver is in the position I want to be in at the end," he said of the character who refuses to die until he finishes his story. “There is a clock running on you and not the clock of mortality but the thought that there is an unknown date when you may lose your marbles, when you can't focus, you can't write, you can't pull together complex thoughts. That perception is strong for MacIver and me.”
Here’s another example from Julian Barnes’ startling novel Levels of Life, that I may discuss at more length in a new Substack I’m working on with two of my colleagues here. In part one, he tells a story about a balloonist and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and he titles this section “The Sin of Height.” Barnes understands well the concept of “heightened reality.” In part two, he reveals that his wife of thirty years has died. He introduces what he’s about to do this way: “Because every love story is a potential grief story.
“Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still—at least, if we are lucky (or on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.”
I know this well, as I explain in my intro to this lesson.
Barnes provides a transition to what Harriet Doerr achieved in her complex story of grief, based on, in her case, all real-life events. This lesson will teach you how to read as a writer. Writing exercises included in the lesson below.
If you’re thinking of writing, no matter your age, this course, which will close soon, is for you. Following will be more essays on other subjects along with (Re)Making Love: a memoir. The course will stand here on Substack, with its free lessons, and the more complex one’s for the small fee of $50 for a year or $5 for a month.
Next will be a guest post by romance novelist
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