Stranger Than NonFiction

Anyone who knows me knows that I love books. I love the look and feel. I love their smell. I love bookstores of all kinds – vintage shops, newer retailers, and especially airport bookstores. But I also love my Kindle Fire. It’s certainly made reading on-the-go a whole lot easier. But despite the ease and portability of the Kindle, you’ll still find upwards of five or six printed books at my bedside. And I’ve made a dent in each of them. My own personal juggling act. I like to see how many books I can keep in my mind at one time.


The most recent book on my must-read list is a bit of a surprise for me. It’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, “The Signature of All Things.” I devoured her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” and although the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, I adored the film version as well. Mostly because I love all things Julia Roberts.
And also because of JAVIER BARDEM…

I digress.

My point is that I don’t generally choose fiction. I’m more of a non-fiction/autobiography/biography/current events kind of gal. But I wonder if it’s maybe because I’ve missed the point. Maybe fiction books paint a clearer picture into the soul of the author. Maybe they are more free to explore themes, feelings, experiences, etc. that might be uncomfortable in a tell-all book or memoir. Maybe the intricacies of a work of fiction allow the author to weave in some of his or her own personal narrative under the guise of character development.

On her Facebook page, Elizabeth Gilbert addresses this very issue after being asked the difference between writing a confessional memoir and writing a work of fiction. Apologies for such a long post, but her reply resonated with me. Here it is with very few edits (Note: I bolded the words that jumped out at me):

Writing a novel is way more personal and revealing. People (understandably) assume that the most vulnerable and exposing thing I ever wrote was “Eat Pray Love”. They want to know how I could possibly have shared such intimate details about my life with the world, and they assume (again, understandably) that it was probably a relief for me to then write an unrevealing novel of pure invention — to hide my true self, as it is, behind fictional characters.

But here’s the thing. My memoir is a very, very polished piece of sea glass. I didn’t publish several volumes of my private diaries, after all, but offered up a well-considered compilation of stories about myself, all of them very carefully edited and selected. And there is a great self-consciousness to writing a memoir: You must be extremely careful about what you say not only about yourself, but also about other people. Also, as open and honest as I tried to be with EPL, the fact remains that perhaps I don’t know myself as well as I think I do. (Who among us really knows ourselves?) I tried to be revealing, I tried to show you exactly who I am…but maybe I am not who I think I am? Certainly legions of other people see me differently than I see myself.

With a novel, on the other hand, the writer is lulled into this sense of safety and expansion and utter liberty (thinking, “This has absolutely nothing to do with me, so I can go in any direction I please!”) and thus might very well accidentally reveal A LOT about herself. It is only now, more than a year after finishing “The Signature of All Things” that I realize how much of me is in there. Some of the most intimate details of my own deepest self (things I would never dream of sharing in a memoir are) are casually littered all over this novel

Think of it like a crime scene. The memoirist, aware of being watched, goes over each page with white gloves and bleach, cleaning up every single bit of stray evidence. The novelist, joyfully oblivious, leaves a trail of hair and fingernails and footprints and bits of incriminating DNA all over her book.

All of which is to say, as I have realized only very lately, you’ll probably learn more a lot more about me by reading “The Signature of All Things” than by reading “Eat Pray Love”.

Oh my God. Even her Facebook posts are brilliant.

As I contemplate writing a book about my experiences as a birth mom, it only recently occurred to me that perhaps memoir isn’t the only way to go. Perhaps I could be a little more vulnerable, a little more free, if I told my story through characters in a work of fiction…something worth considering.

But now I’m curious. Where do you stand? What are your personal reading preferences? Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

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3 thoughts on “Stranger Than NonFiction

  1. I definitely prefer fiction, specifically YA, but I’ll read nonfiction if it’s something that really interests me. I think you’re right about being able to be more free and open by writing your story as fiction. You probably wouldn’t edit yourself as much, and you may be more honest.

  2. Non-fiction almost always! Having said that, I sometimes feel the “non”-fiction I read has a varying dose of fiction tossed in,..which brings us back to your thoughts.

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