Writing about the Past

Lately I’ve been trying to discipline myself to write more often, for pleasure. I enjoy writing, but find it difficult to find the time, especially when so much of the day is spent reading or writing for academic purposes. In the fall, there was a short story competition that was advertised in Canadian newspapers, so I thought I’d enter a story. It seemed like a good excuse to start writing, as getting started, for me, is often the hardest part. I decided that I was going to continue working on a story that I had started in the MPhil course, where one of our coursework tasks was to compose a piece of writing for children.

I was writing a story about my grandmother, who grew up on the Canadian prairie during the depression. As a child, she often told me stories of life in Saskatchewan, a place I had never been. Her stories were vivid. Writing of my grandmother, and of my childhood, and of these memories, required sitting at my computer and trying to recall her descriptions. She had paid such attention to detail — the shape of the land, the coldness of winter months, what life was like on the farm. She had tried vigilantly to allow her grandchildren to understand what life was like when she was a child. As I sat to write it became clear to me that I was taking her stories and making them my own. I was writing my own version of stories that I heard as a child. How much could I depend on these recollections? Did I need to stay true? After all, they weren't really 'my stories' to change.

I’ve never read my grandmother my story, as I am sure that it does not align exactly with the way things were, or the way she told them. With that said, I am certain that her memories of Saskatchewan themselves have changed since she told me them, a handful of years ago. It isn't just my own version that isn't reliable. I find that this shifting of stories, and of memories, adds a rich layer of meaning to storytelling. How will these stories have changed when I tell them to my own grandchildren, when they ask me about my grandmother?

But this type of writing is also problematic. What am I? What am I writing? Am I a memoirist? Or an autobiographer? If so, then am I being untrue to my audience, if I sometimes ‘make up’ or ‘imagine’ the details, where something from memory is missing? So is this somewhat fiction?

The story was entered into the ‘short story’ competition, with results impending. Over Christmas, they released another competition, this time labeled as a ‘non-fiction’ competition. I spent time debating, alone and in conversations with others, about the difference between the two, and where, if anywhere, my story fit in. Yes, it was a short story. It was around 2000 words long, and it stood on its own. It wasn’t part of something larger, though it could have been. But was it also non-fiction? It was based on a real life character, telling supposedly ‘true’ stories of her childhood to her grandchildren. But the instructions for the competition were clear: the story must be true.

A day or so before the non-fiction competition closed, I emailed the jury, asking for clarification. I explained that my story could really be part of either competition. They responded and told me that this was ‘not possible’. They asked, ‘how can a story be true and not true at the same time?’. I didn’t bother re-submitting. The question annoyed me.

Alas, I still don’t know where my story stands. I am not really sure if there is a right or a wrong answer, but I think it is an interesting debate, and one that we can continually ask about literature — how and when does something really become ‘non-fiction,’ especially if we are drawing on memories, especially memories of our childhood? If we are writing about the past, which is always fluid in our minds, is it ever entirely true?