I've spent my time in smoky bars, listening to authors I know debate about what is true memoir, what is good fiction, and when and how to use your own life experience in your work. When I first started writing prose, I had a tricky time differentiating between fiction and memoir, and tended to hold my tongue during such debates.
While pursuing my master's degree in fiction at Manhattan's amazing and quirky The New School, my first stab at a novel (I'd been penning screenplays) followed the "write what you know" approach. That seemed safe enough.
I inked out a short story about six friends at dinner, a very thinly veiled satire of my own rambunctious circle of gay comrades. Over a two year period, that piece evolved into my first novel Bergdorf Boys, threading elements of fact with fiction.
The fine line between real and fantasy, at times, was leaner than my skinny jeans. For example the hero's name is Neal (when I was nine, I begged my mother to change my name to Neal based on Neely O'Hara from Valley of the Dolls). Neal works at Pop Magazine (I was editor at NYC gay weekly Next Magazine) and falls for a Harlem-dwelling drug dealer named Dewalt (at the time I was living in Harlem and dating... well... Dewalt).
My second novel, Diary of a Sex Addict, moved away from my actual self, but relied on situations I'd heard about or experienced during sex-drenched periods of my single life.
Over time, my writing has become less and less about me. My current novel The Jockey -- set in 1918 about a 12-year-old dirt-poor, straight boy -- has absolutely nothing to do with my life, at least on a conscious level, and is my strongest work to date.
What I have discovered is that the further I move from myself, the richer my writing has become. I have never ridden a horse, but was able to explore the experience in The Jockey.
With all my might I hefted fast and hard, my belly teetering on the back of the pony. The animal took this just fine, my belly on his back, face flapping over the other side looking down at crow shit earth. We settled like that, me resting there more like the saddle, not the rider.
A door slammed up at the house. Likely Pa having a night-restless smoke. I hoped he didn't check in my room, but that weren't likely. The slam made the pony jolt a bit and I nearly slid off but somehow the movement jammed us together so I grabbed hold of the horse's chestnut dark mane, swaying sideways then pulling around and snapping up like a doll, upright, clinging.
"We done that," I said, leaning down and whispering. "Let's get on."
I weren't so cold any more, legs warm against the pony's sides. Then that house door slammed again, Pa cold and going into Ma's warmth. With the slam, the pony started to walk, clomping through night earth out into the field, directionless into the blackness, toward the death out there. We both turned our backs on that moon and on the farm house, stepping solid across the bleak field. I held tight and felt the hunger of the animal come up into me. We stepped faster, pushing up into the vacant midnight jaw of some God's field, further and faster, flesh on flesh us two blistering into the night, Gran's cheek on my shoulder, riding.
A recent discussion with two writers I know unearthed some interesting perspectives about writing what you know, mixing fantasy and fact, and debating what divides memoir from fiction based on experience.
Amanda Miller, who has authored both fiction and a memoir, One Breath, Then Another, attests that a memoir is "true stories about real people and real events," but she adds, "I usually can't remember the exact dialogue that occurred a long time ago so that is slightly imagined. But it always communicates the essence of what is spoken." On the flip side, when writing fiction, she uses personal experiences and conflicts as the starting point and then funnels them into the story.
While I've repeatedly been asked if Diary of a Sex Addict, is memoir posing as fiction (it's not) Tyler Lindsay author of Your Boyfriend and Other Guys I've Kissed: The Tails of Totally Tyler gets the opposite reaction to his non-fiction work. "I get asked a lot if I'm making these stories up... It's all true. Most of the things that have happened in my life are too ridiculously crazy to be made up." He says he does change names (to protect the innocent and guilty) and he has combined several people into one character to increase narrative clarity.
While I greatly admire both Amanda and Tyler, personally, I'm glad to have shucked any remnants of my actual life, and moved fully into things imagined. Ultimately, my gut self emerges. When the young hero of my novel, Bud, falls for a 14-year-old prostitute named Tessy, the intimacy they share and their incredible yearnings are of course, universal.
For me, my personal experiences can clutter my perspective. What I yearn to write about will always be a result of my truths, but how I chose to write them is in constant evolution.