Amalgamation – or How to respond when someone asks, “Is this about you?”

According to Merriam-Webster, amalgamation is “the action or process of uniting or merging two or more things.” This can show up in the merging of businesses, the fusion of two different music styles, and the blending of two cultures.

In the world of writing, amalgamation happens consciously and unconsciously. Some writers intentionally draw from their personal lives, use real situations but change names to protect the innocent (and themselves from being sued), use their home town or state as the milieu for a story, and much more.

For other writers, like me, amalgamation happens unconsciously. It wasn’t until I was partway through the second draft of my in-progress novel, Miranda’s Garden, that I realized Crystal, Miranda’s (my main character’s) neighbor, is an amalgamation of both of my grandmothers. And I realized Miranda’s husband, Len, was an amalgamation of my first and second husbands and my cousin, Keith. I also consciously use Illinois and Colorado as settings for the story because I’ve lived in both areas long enough to be able to write about the terrain and because cornfields and mountains play an important part in the story, as metaphor.

An excellent example of a current author who uses amalgamation – and acknowledges it (although I’ve never read that he’s used this word to describe it) – is James Frey. Frey was in Portland recently talking about his newest book, Katerina. While at Powell’s City of Books, he indicated that he did, in fact, go to Paris in his early 20s to write and he did, in fact, date a model named Katerina, just like the character in the book. He said he also made up stuff.

You may recall Frey from the 2006 debacle when he and his book, A Million Little Pieces, rose to fame as a beacon of recovery after landing on Oprah’s Book Club list and was then knocked off her pedestal after it was discovered parts of the book were fictionalized. This unfortunate turn of events came about for a few reasons: Frey had used real-life events and embellished, Frey’s publisher thought it best to position the book as a memoir, and Oprah – to spare her precious ego and because she was clueless about how literary genres function – came out like God on the Day of Reckoning to publicly castigate and shame Frey.

This cluelessness is common, and I’ve seen it a lot after sharing my work and while attending public readings and exhibitions of others. Some readers/listeners/viewers feel the need to pry into the “truthfulness” of a story – even when that story is deemed fictional. Many will assume that the use of the first person “I” indicates a story about the writer. Or if the story is presented in third person point of view, there’s often the sly, “This is really about you, isn’t it?”

When I screened my feature film, Found Objects, some people commented on the similarities between the main character in the story and me. Yes, she was a creative soul who had lost herself in the domestic sphere of the nuclear family consisting of a husband and three kids. Yes, I drew from a couple of incidents – like the day my son, Spencer, came home from school and said he’d learned that physical touch can help us live longer (which from then on, for a long, long time, led to him saying, “Hey, mom, I wanna live longer” whenever he wanted a hug). And yes, the husband had wanted to be an architect, just like mine had, which I chose to use only because it aligned well with my use of houses and spaces as metaphors for our Selves. The rest was a story about a character that grew in my mind, became her own person, and had her own story to tell.

One of my professors from grad school had the perfect comeback for the is-this-about-you question: “Will knowing this allow you to take in the work differently?” In my experience, the answer has always been ‘no’.

Those who understand how the creative process works understand that whether we’re writing about ourselves or not is immaterial. It’s the story – the work – and its emotional impact that matter. In a world so fraught with accusations about what’s fake and what’s real, we must remember that, in many (most?) cases, truthfulness is subjective. If you and I live an event, we’ll both have different truths about it and what it means. As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, you can bet there’s a complex blend of “lies” and truths. Memoirists often condense events and timelines, and they conflate characters. These decisions are usually done for the sake of economy of language among other reasons. Does it matter if a memoir isn’t completely factual? I don’t think so. Of course, there are ways to let readers know when we’ve made adjustments to “reality” (a note at the front of the book will suffice) if that’s important to you. But this is for every writer to decide.

When deciding whether or not I deem a book “good,” I don’t care much about the conventions of formatting or doing things “by the book,” and I won’t take the time to sleuth about to find out if the author did her/his research (for fiction) or lived through an event in the book (for memoir).  For me, what matters most is the emotional truthfulness of a story. If I read a book – fiction or memoir – and it touches me, resonates with me, and stays with me for days, I’m satisfied.

So… put the heart of your story first. Tell it with all the emotional truthfulness you and your main character can gather. Then decide how much you want or need to stick to the “facts.” It’s yours to tell.

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