Since publishing Open Borders in 2018, I have been writing about another segment of my life as fiction. It seemed necessary to fictionalize the story because when I wrote it true, even while changing the protagonist’s name, my writing peers recognized him. He was dead but his family and former colleagues were not. Dozens of grateful parents remembered him from the way he understood and provided options for their precocious children.
I needed to tell the story of my professional and not so professional relationship with the protagonist but I was not prepared for the blow back from people who recognized him on the page.
I spent the last four-and-a-half-years turning the story into fiction. I needed a different world with different back-stories. Annie Proulx is a master at building a concrete world that convinces the reader putting him or her into the sights, sounds, and smells of Nova Scotia. When I read Shipping News, I could smell the low tide stench of rotting fish and feel the fear of icy water the way her protagonist did. But my research in parts of the United States where I was somewhat at home did not result is the blood and bone knowledge that comes from living in a place. I was not prepared to spend the time it takes to know a place the Proulx does before writing her novels. My main character, a fictionalized version of myself remained stiff and distant in her false ambiance. The story had to remain in the Pacific Northwest.
Take the protagonist out of academia. Let the setting arise from my own experience. Discover the historical past of Seattle’s lesser know neighborhoods. It was great fun creating a world for my characters. But my own fictionalized voice remained hollow and unconvincing. In the end, I have gone back to memoir. Some of us need to mine the inner struggles of identity and the quest for an authentic life through memoir.
The story of my current work answers the question I get so often, ‘how did you meet your husband?’
“He was my high school history teacher.”
“Wasn’t that against the law? Did you date? How could that happen?”
What happened in a small town high school in 1954 when a twenty-three-year-old Rhodes Scholar showed up as the substitute history teacher? My (Betsy Johnson’s) senior year suddenly became interesting and a potentially dull future turned bright with possibilities. My father, an influential physician, lionized the young man. Other teachers and my classmates threw us together. But in my private war to prove my father wrong about me (I was no whore!), I must navigate the budding romance with an eye to the future. I must prove my father wrong about me.
Stay tuned for out-takes that do not advance the narrative and reflections about the structure of memoir. I look forward to sharing my thoughts about memoir with you and hope you will engage with me on the topic. For me, writing is a dialogue and I welcome your side of the discussion.