Nothing will convince a person more completely of the subjectivity of (literary) truth than writing the same memoir twice—with a ten-year interval in between. My memoir about moving to Ljubljana to marry a Slovenian poet during the Yugoslav wars of secession (Forbidden Bread to be released by North Atlantic Books in April 2009) is a case in point. The story was first commissioned in the late 1990s by the Slovenian newspaper Delo as a feuilleton and then published as a book in Slovenian translation. Nearly ten years later, North Atlantic Books picked up the as yet unpublished English original for release in America, though with one important caveat: it had to be rewritten in a less journalistic style. It had to be recast in a more novelistic form that would better highlight the love story at the emotional center of the narrative about a young American woman moving to a recently communist country bordering a war zone.
A tall order—perhaps. An interesting exercise in the transformation of lived experience into literary truth—definitely. Since the controversial publication of memoirs such as James Frey's Million Little Pieces and Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, this has become a fraught topic in the American publishing and creative writing worlds. It's hardly surprising as the issue touches on so many hot buttons of American culture. In terms of creative writing and the burgeoning genre of non-fiction, it points directly to an unresolved schism as to the meaning, purpose, and rules of non-fiction forms such as memoir, autobiography, and the personal essay. Is so-called creative non-fiction merely elevated journalism and therefore wedded to the objective truth? Or is it a form of written therapy that allows the discovery and unveiling of subjective personal truths that must not be altered to accommodate the published work? Or is it (as I believe) on the same level as fiction at its best—an art form to which objective truth (facts) and subjective (or therapeutic) truth must occasionally be subordinate?
An honest writer of either fiction or non-fiction has to admit that the treatment of characters and situations, what is left in and what is left out, ultimately serves the meaning of the work, and that meaning can change over time. In other words, there is content (lived experience, impressions, imagination) and there is form (genre, story shape, the flow of words and sentences on the page), and the process of a writer funneling content into form will virtually always produce a different product depending on perspective and what meaning is being pushed to the fore at any given time. This is not a popular view in non-fiction because it permits too much ambiguity and ambiguity makes people uncomfortable. When Oprah so famously confronted James Frey on her show, the most common response was: "There oughta be a rule!" Publishing houses and magazines, worried about lawsuits, rushed to beef up their fact checking departments. Rules in—ambiguity out.
What changed in my memoir over that ten year period? I would be the first to admit that I made changes in chronology and sometimes even in cold hard facts between the two versions in order to emphasize the new meaning I wanted to put forward ten years later. When I wrote the story in the 1990s, I didn't have the distance to create a nuanced portrait of the man who swept me off my feet and took me to another country, so I made a mere sketch of him. Living in a moment of intense passion and sensitivity, I also wasn't able to articulate the first time around how fantastically quirky was the period of transition out of communism, how splendid the lost multicultural Yugoslavia. As a result of changed perspective and meaning, my selections ten years later were very different, and ultimately selection is memory. It's like the pictures we put into a family photo album. Our childhood becomes a distillation of the images in the album while unrecorded instants slowly fade away. Literature—selecting, recording, interpreting—creates its own truth and that's precisely where its power and danger lies.
Naturally the two versions of Forbidden Bread have a lot in common as well. Both contain anecdotes about cultural differences and language and (mis)understanding. Slovenians, for example, view the wearing of slippers with the utmost urgency—going around without slippers even in the summer can cause a host of ills: common colds, bladder infections, kidney stones—and the Slovenian language reflects that urgency. They have no word for stocking-feet. You're either shod or unshod—there is nothing in between. And yet Slovenian, and this is true of many other non-Anglo-Saxon languages, is much less dogmatic when it comes to fiction and non-fiction, having no such dichotomous expression for these concepts. They have words for prose, poetry, essays, biography but no catch-all words that categorize in opposite camps truth and non-truth, reality and non-reality. So when the literary equivalent of a stocking foot walks onto the scene, Slovenians have no particular difficulty with it. They just see it as part of the continuum of literature, part of the continuum of truth and art. And in this way, Slovenia has become not only my literal home but also my literary home.