• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I’m Choosing My Confessions

I ask a writer to add a scene so I better understand a character. He invents a scene that blows me away. It feels so real that I privately think it’s autobiographical. Of course I don’t ask because that would be a) naive b) uncouth and c) uncool. Why does my mind jump there? How much of fiction is autobiographical? Why do we read made up stories? Are we children? Why do we hope to extract truth from fiction? Can you write anything that doesn’t come from your own experience, even in that abstractified, personalized, emotional, autumnal way? Robots, vampires, gullions, wasps. C’est moi.  On the 5:40 train this morning, from New Haven to New York, a woman named Laura said over and over, “Mom, we will mail the check to Gordon on Friday. Yes, by mail. Yes, mother. This is Laura. I’m going to the city. I wrote it on the calendar. We will mail the check, yes, mail.”

Is is true? Does it matter?


26 Responses

  1. “Why does my mind jump there? How much of fiction is autobiographical? Why do we read made up stories?”

    I do not know why your mind jumps there or anywhere; however much of fiction is autobiographical varies from piece to piece; and we read made up stories probably not so much to escape from our own worlds as to center us in them more securely.

    “Are we children?”

    The child is the parent to the adult.

    “Why do we hope to extract truth from fiction?”

    The only fiction worth the time is true.

    “Can you write anything that doesn’t come from your own experience, even in that abstractified, personalized, emotional, autumnal way?”

    This is a good one. At first I was going to say, “Yes,” but upon reflection, I’m not sure. The view must be from somewhere, and everyone is somewhere, no matter the details of the view.

    “On the 5:40 train this morning, from New Haven to New York, a woman named Laura said over and over, ‘Mom, we will mail the check to Gordon on Friday. Yes, by mail. Yes, mother. This is Laura. I’m going to the city. I wrote it on the calendar. We will mail the check, yes, mail.’”

    “Is is [sic] true?”

    About the check, it better be true as in factually, get the mail and open the envelope true, or there’s going to be trouble.

    “Does it matter?”

    About the check, in the manner described above, it matters. About fiction it matters, too, but the nature of the truth is different. And it matters differently to different persons in different contexts. I was in an MFA fiction workshop a few years back and the issue of whether or not my stories were “true”–with “true” never being defined–came up, and I responded, “They’re as true as you want them to be.” Some of my fellow students were incensed at this answer.

  2. Betsy, you make my day.

    And nights.


  3. Everything which matters is based on truth from somewhere.

    If you say, I cannot tell a lie, are you telling the truth or are you lying, and does it matter which it is?

  4. One of the best things about writing fiction is identifying an emotion you want to convey and then making up a scene to go with it. Is it autobiographical? The emotion is. Does the check mailed or not mailed matter?

  5. The answer is no. I can’t write anything that doesn’t come from my own life. I wish this were otherwise, but wishing does not make it so. When I dream, I dream of making shit up. Never happens.

  6. A story, a scene, a conversation, even a photograph doesn’t have to be true – but please don’t let it be a lie. Lies just infuriate me as they are the purest form of disregard for someone’s trust.

    ps- the conversation from the train reminds me of the four sentence conversations I had with my father again and again during his last days. The routine gave him comfort in his disoriented state and yes, the answers were truthful.

  7. I think you can believe you have made someone up, but places rarely. To convince they have to be breathed. And emotions, I think you can warp what you have lived, or even beat a path away from it. But I know I am always borrowing and burrowing.

  8. This blog segues to the next questions. Do writers write what they know? Or what they don’t know and want to find out? Maybe, the way we fall into relationships to heal past relationships, maybe, maybe, through writing, we can heal those relationships, too, and find the magically happy ending we were seeking. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.
    diana bletter
    The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle

  9. […] her blog today, Betsy Lerner writes about reading between the lines to find the lies. Or the make-believe. The pretend. And then […]

  10. I was going to say no, but then I remembered some short stories I wrote a long time ago that definitely have me in them, so pooh. But in the last few years it’s my ten-year-old self who gets into the writing, so that makes me happier. I never did want to grow up, although I have since learned to appreciate the advantages of living by my own rules.

  11. Maybe we dredge it all up from that Collective Unconscious Jung liked so much.

    I’d like to think those serial killers aren’t really me.

    • And when you tap into the subconscious, who can say what’s real and what’s not, even if it happened long ago to a distant relative…..
      And then if you invade another person’s reality, well then there really is no telling.

  12. I once workshopped a chapter where a young Resistance fighter was fleeing Paris by train for Switzerland. A woman in the class said she had taken that route many times and she loved the way I got the details of the trip exactly right.
    The thing is… I made it all up. I hadn’t been to Switzerland yet, never mind a Paris train station circa 1945. The trip existed as a dreamy vignette in my head, but the need to flee, the intense emotion that fueled the story, was all me.

    Long story short: The emotion of a piece is me. The rest, not so much.

  13. It all matters.

  14. How does a salmon fight its way upstream to its birthplace, to spawn and die? How does it locate the exact spot? How can one bee understand the dance of another, and somehow find the nectar? How is it that a woman’s smile can be interpreted as friendship or slyness or flirtation by any other human being regardless of language or culture?

    Some truths are inbred, instinctual, the bottom rung of the DNA. They exist apart from experience. They were earned not by me but by the thousand generations that came before me. I don’t need to lose a child to write about the experience; I carry the grief of ten thousand mothers in my marrow, and hear the ghosts of their children in my dreams.

    Factual truth is irrelevant except if there is some attempt to deceive, and in that case both writer and reader are going to miss the point. I see Laura on the 5:40 and I’ve added a teary little eye-roll for good measure. That’s true enough for me.

  15. “Robots, vampires, gullions, wasps.”

    Perfect. Who needs truth when you’ve got rhythm?

  16. Fiction is a way of escaping into a world that you could never inhabit, but even fiction has to root itself in some form of truth. I think it’s very freeing to write fiction because you can lay all your cards on the table and put a different face and name to it. You can hide behind your characters and work through your problems without having that vulnerable, naked feeling. You still feel a bit of that, but not as harsh as you would if it were autobiographical. I know it sounds like a cop out, but I’m a coward at heart.

  17. “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” (DFW)

  18. Autobiographical fiction, as in yes, we can’t help but overhear (commit to heart) conversations in trains about checks that matter.

  19. What’s the point of having something called an imagination if everything has to be from our lives, or what we pick up from others’ lives? Unamuno wrote a story in 1904, “The Madness of Dr. Montarco,” about a man who lost his practice and then his mind because everybody thought the weird stories he published reflected his thoughts and desires. I think that’s a real fear, that people will see us in our creations and reject us.

    On the other hand, I also believe that what we think we’re making up could be a memory from a prior incarnation. I once woke up in a sweat from a nightmare in which I had decapitated someone and was walking down a dock, looking for a place to dispose of my victim’s head. It took four hours of early-morning agonizing (while my then-boyfriend slept, unaware, next to the ruthless killer I thought I was) to come to the conclusion that I didn’t do it because I simply couldn’t have done it. But it sure felt like I had. I have no reason or desire to write about this fictionally, but it would make a killer [snort] scene.

  20. I think most fiction writing does have truth/the writer’s experience in it. Even fantasy…I think some people are just so imaginative they don’t need as much to let their minds run with it, while others need a heavier dose of experience to be involved. I find myself in the latter category. I’ve been writing my mother’s childhood out in story form for her, but I can’t think of a way to frame it except through my own relationship with her. But I want her to be the focus…the me part of her life offers much less to the story than what she’s come through herself.

  21. Whatever I lie, here on my page, it’s me, to make me happy.

  22. Good god. The 5:40…AM train? As in, before sunrise?

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