The Mark Blog

The Surrealist Memoir

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about me. Or, at least, the role I play in my own fiction. Is this what they mean by narcissism? I’m not falling in love with my own reflection or anything, more like studying it, describing it, ripping it apart, then putting it all back together in a new form. Ideally, I’d like to be able to write about other people, to use the creative act to get outside myself, or at least my concept of self. But for now, I can’t get away from myself.
Not everything I write is “true.” I use the flexibility of fiction to put a spin on life events, to orchestrate events and moments as I see fit. It’s like being a musical arranger; the structure of the chord progressions is already there and it’s up to the arranger to layer them and make the song come alive in interesting, unexpected ways. So if the truth is a standard blues jam, the story is Muddy Waters growling over the top of it.


What to call this form? It’s not quite memoir, not quite fiction. In an article on The New Inquiry, Emily Cooke tackles this somewhat new form, dubbing it “semi-autobiography.” While I may not agree with her adoration of spontaneous writing, I do relate to this passage: “…the new semi-autobiographers, you might call them, reject privacy and propriety for openness and provocation. In their novels-from-life they aim for a synthesis of the personal and the intellectual on the one hand, and the fictional and the nonfictional on the other."

Apparently, writers like Kate Zambreno and Sheila Heti include real emails and conversations in their “novels” and refuse traditional plot structures. Though this type of writing intrigues me, it’s not quite what I’m going for. I don’t think a novel will ever be “life” because a) it’s words on a page, and b) there’s always selection. Writers choose what parts of their lives they want to show. This kind of editorializing shapes a version of reality into a fiction. I want my stories to have the feel of life with the payoff of fiction. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. What the hell else are you going to do with cake, anyway?

One of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolaño, mastered this balancing act. As I’ve described before, his protagonists seem to be versions of himself, right down to the names Arturo Belano and B. He retells real events in minute detail, giving his fiction the engaging quality of memoir. Sometimes he details various moments in a character’s life with no rising action, climax, or resolution. In either case, he creates a compelling whole.

I’m drawn to the construction of a kind of surrealist memoir. I like the inherent contradiction in that term. Some of my stories are rooted in the everyday, while others contain dreamlike elements. It’s like holding up a broken mirror to reality: you can still make out the truth, but it’s warped, fragmented, not quite real.
I want my stories to work like shards of broken glass that, when pieced together, create a whole, cracked mirror. I can see my own reflection in that mirror, but it’s like a fucked-up, cubist version of me. And maybe, hopefully, readers will see pieces of themselves in it, too.