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Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo

Posted: September 1, 2010 09:31 PM

Ray Bradbury once said, "There is only one type of story in the world--your story."

In other words, all writing is autobiographical. No matter how seemingly removed in time and space from the reality of your own life, you're writing about yourself. Even your impulse to tell a particular story arises from an aspect of your interior world.

Case in point: My new crime novel, Mirror Image, is the first in a series featuring a psychotherapist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. This character, Daniel Rinaldi,
is Italian-American, was born and raised in the Steel City, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. As did I.

Like me, he spent a fair amount of his childhood hanging around "the Strip," the famed produce yards of the city. Also like me, part of his training as a therapist included a stint at a private psychiatric hospital. (However, my schooling and training occurred here in Los Angeles. For the purposes of the novel, many of the people, places and events I witnessed or participated in during that period of my life have been transposed to Pittsburgh.) And finally, like me, Rinaldi has a weakness for traditional jazz.

Of course, Mirror Image is a work of fiction, so there are definitely points at which Rinaldi and I part company. For one thing, he was an amateur boxer in his youth. The other, even more obvious difference, is that Daniel Rinaldi is a lot braver and more resourceful than I am. Most of the dangerous situations he finds himself in would have me running for the hills!

So Daniel Rinaldi both is and isn't me. As clinicians, he and I are similar in our theoretical orientations and manner of doing therapy. His best friend, a paranoid schizophrenic named Noah Frye, is even based on a patient at the private clinic with whom I was especially close. But, though we share these and other personal similarities, as a character he clearly represents a fantasized version of me.

As do, I believe, all characters brought to life by their literary creators--no matter how seemingly "factual" the details of their biography and personality, no matter how seemingly "true" the events being depicted.

That said, I want to recount an interesting session I had with a writer patient whose short story was getting repeatedly rejected. The story was based on a powerful event from her childhood, one that we'd explored often in therapy --which had in part prompted her to use it as the basis for a work of fiction.

She sat now in my office, depressed and bewildered. "I don't understand it. The last two editors I sent it to said they loved the writing, and the story. But they hated the ending."

"Maybe you need to look at it again. Re-think it."

"You mean, change it?" She looked up at me, confused. "But I can't. It's what really happened."

Her response reminded me of the classes I'd taught years before on turning autobiography into fiction. Often, students would mine incidents from their own lives and turn them into narratives that failed to provide a satisfactory resolution to the story. No matter how compelling the autobiographical source material, the story didn't work as a story. To which the student invariably replied, "But that's the way it really happened."

"No," I was always tempted to say, "that's your experience of what happened."

In other words, there is no objective truth in any event from our past, insofar as the meanings we derive from it. The event is always remembered through the filter of our particular feelings, prejudices and needs. Every memory serves, however unconsciously, our own agenda. The "truth" in autobiographical writing resides in the self-experience of the writer. (As someone once said, reading Freud doesn't teach you about man; it teaches you about Freud.)

So, in terms of fiction based on personal experience, to be slavishly devoted to "the truth" is impossible, on the one hand, and may be detrimental to the narrative, on the other.

Yes, all writing is autobiographical. And a creation, an imaginative act. The moment an incident from your own life is conceptualized as having possibilities as a story or screenplay, the incident begins to change.

Let's imagine an incident: say, the time your Aunt Betty, making cookies in the kitchen, cried at the sudden news of her husband's death, but kept making the cookies, hands shaking as she kneaded the dough, because they had always been his favorite...

Now, as the impulse to use this incident as a story arises, something happens. Your imagination and craft--even your desire to use the incident--renders it no longer merely a memory from your past, but a story to be shaped.

Events are changed, truncated, altered in sequence. People--or, as they should now be called, "characters"--are combined for clarity's sake, or eliminated altogether. Emphasis is shifted, so that the incident's narrative forms a cohesive whole, with a set-up that builds with mounting intensity to a (hopefully) powerful ending.

In other words, what started as a poignant moment from your childhood has become just another scene in your novel or screenplay, and therefore fodder for the sometimes ruthless demands of aesthetic and craft.

Cookies too cute?--make it something else. Why not needlepoint, which would get Betty out of the kitchen (which is good, because you already used the kitchen for the big sibling argument scene). Besides, if Betty's in the living room, Mom can be present. Wait a minute...if Mom's there, the news of Betty's husband's death doesn't have to come by phone. She could tell Betty--Jesus, what's that like, having to deliver such awful news? Hmmm...maybe this is really Mom's scene, not Betty's...

And so it goes. Memory becomes scene, grist for the creative mill. And yet no less meaningful for the writer, regardless of the permutations, because the original spark, the artistic impulse that latched onto that memory and saw its potential, came out of authentic feeling. Its ultimate form is irrelevant to the process of mining autobiographical material for fiction.

Which brings me back to that therapy session I mentioned. As my writer patient struggled with the idea that narrative concerns might require that events in her memory be altered or re-shaped, she realized she felt a profound need to be loyal to "what really happened." It took her a while to reconcile the demands of story-telling versus the requirements of loyalty to her personal history, to the people in her life whose stories she was, after all, appropriating for her own ends.

Which is, as I told her, what writers do.

Just ask Daniel Rinaldi. That is, if he were real...