“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In writing fiction we inevitably come to that moment that is lifted directly from our real life. Fidelity to real life events can create a block in the rewrite. In an attempt to be faithful to the event, we can lose our connection to the truth of our story. The facts of the event are not enough – we must also provide our reader with context; what does this event mean in terms of the larger story? Sometimes we can have such an entrenched idea about what happened that we miss the essence of the incident. Our perception of the event can often limit our understanding of the event.
The question to ask is, “What do I want to express through this event?” Seemingly important points become suddenly irrelevant when we explore the nature of the event. It does not matter that our real Aunt Maddy and Uncle Petey live in a four-story Coney Island walk-up, when what we are interested in is the big fight they had on a Ferris wheel when she admitted the truth that he was not her first love. If it serves our story to be set on the plains of Nebraska, and what we are really interested in is exploring the prickly relationship between the fictional versions of our Aunt Maddy and Uncle Petey, we can still show their fight, though it may take place on a Ferris wheel overlooking a fairground instead of the ocean.
If we try to shoehorn real life events into our fictive world, it will almost certainly throw our story off the rails. It is like when we download a file on our computer and it asks us to put it in a different format to make it readable. By distilling the event to its essence, our reader can be made to understand the nature of Aunt Maddy and Uncle Petey’s marriage, regardless of the setting.
A similar principle applies to memoir writing. Just because something happened in our life does not mean it necessarily deserves to be in the memoir. If we were to recount every blessed event that happened in our life, the story would never end. If the same beat is played throughout the story, we might want to choose one or two beats to illustrate the point so that our reader does not endure endless repetition. What happens is less important than why it happens.
Wherever an aspect of your real life situation does not satisfy the purposes of your fiction, alter the event. Dressing our fiction with real life situations is like buying a suit off the rack. It is going to require alterations.