Saturday, October 17, 2015

fictionalizing real life: WordWorks article

The following article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of WordWorks magazine published by the Federation of BC Writers.


Fictionalizing Real Life

by Elma (Martens) Schemenauer


Ethel Wilson in her classic novel Swamp Angel fictionalizes life at Lac Le Jeune near Kamloops. Harold Rhenisch in his book of short stories, Carnival, combines his father's character with his own to give readers a fictionalized look at life in Germany during the 1930s and after.

Why do authors sometimes fictionalize real experiences? Certainly there are places for writing about life as it actually happened. Examples include memoirs, autobiographies, and history books.

However, there are also reasons for fictionalizing:

-Fictionalizing gives us a larger framework for exploring personal and family issues.

-It externalizes our sorrows and puts them in perspective, bringing order to confused feelings and thoughts.

-It can make mundane events more exciting.

-It's a way to explore vulnerabilities and shortcomings while aspiring to something higher and more meaningful.

-Fiction can portray the human condition in a way non-fiction can't. In the words of author Gail Anderson-Dergatz, "Writing it as fiction can help you tell it even more truthfully."

How do we fictionalize real life? Rohinton Mistry, in his short story Swimming Lessons, says: "Fiction can come from facts, it can grow out of facts by compounding, transposing, augmenting, diminishing, or altering them in any way." For instance, an author might compound two cities to make a new one, and then alter the result to create a symbolically meaningful city. An author might transpose a quiet woman and talkative man to create a talkative woman and quiet man, and then augment them so they both become larger-than-life.

In my 1940s-era Mennonite novel Consider the Sunflowers, I fictionalized the lives of some of my relatives. One example is my mother. She worked in Vancouver as a young woman, but left to marry her boyfriend in rural Saskatchewan. Later she missed Vancouver. However, she knew my father would never move there, so she tried to persuade him to move closer to their nearest Saskatchewan town.

I fictionalized that situation by altering their names and personalities, putting words in their mouths, and giving them more straightforward motives than I suspect my parents had. Following is an excerpt illustrating that. Tina and her husband, Frank, are at the breakfast table, where they've been discussing the idea of moving.

Frank pulled his chair closer to hers, the lines around his eyes softening. "I know it's not easy for you," he said, putting his arm around her. "But you haven't given this place a fair chance yet. You haven't even lived here around the seasons." He glanced out the window. "I picture our baby when he gets bigger, running through the wildflowers with his pretty mama. Her hair flying in the wind." Frank gave her the crooked smile that almost always made her heart melt.

Tina shrank away from him. She wouldn't weaken, not this time. "It's a nice picture, but we'd have wind and wildflowers by town, too."

"It wouldn't be the same. Some of our land here is virgin prairie. It's never been touched by a plough."

"It's running with coyotes."

"Coyotes are okay. They help keep the rabbits down."

Tina shivered. "They scare me, howling at night. They sound like lost souls." Sometimes she felt like a lost soul herself.

Frank lifted his arm off her shoulders. "I told you, Tina, I can't live near town. I can't stand being so close to other people. They crowd me. You can't lock me in a cage. Please don't try."

For reasons that are unclear to me, my father felt like a black sheep in the Saskatchewan Mennonite community where our family lived. He preferred to socialize with our Scandinavian and British neighbours. I altered and amplified that situation, giving my character Frank a background that included concrete reasons for his feelings. Here's an excerpt illustrating that.

Monday was laundry day. Frank stood at the stove dipping hot water out of the boiler, his bass voice rumbling something from Tchaikovsky. He seemed to be in a good mood. Maybe this was the time for Tina to ask him. "Frank?"


"I've been thinking." Tina dropped a flannel sheet into the washtub and rubbed a bar of laundry soap over it. "We haven't invited the Fehrs or Brauns over since we got married. Or the Friesens or any of our other Mennonite neighbours."

"So?" Frank's expression was as blank as dough.

"We could ask some of them to come for coffee, maybe Sunday afternoon."

He dumped a pail of hot water into the washtub and swirled it around, mixing it with the cooler water. "What makes you think the Fehrs and Brauns and them want to visit with us?"

"Why wouldn't they?"

"Come on, Tina. You know as well as I do. I don't fit in with the Mennonites. They didn't even invite me to the men's breakfast."

"That's because we don't attend church regularly."

He snorted. "Don't fool yourself. They think I'm not good enough for them."

"How can you say that?" Tina scrubbed the sheet on the washboard. "They practically begged you to play your guitar at the Christmas concert."

"Sure, but you know what they were thinking: 'Gypsies are great entertainers. You've got to admit that. In Russia they played and sang like angels. But you didn't dare turn your back on them. First thing you knew, they'd pick your pocket or steal your horse.'"

Tina rolled her eyes. How could Frank keep harping on the few stories he'd heard about Russian Gypsies? There were worse characters in Russia, far worse. She dropped the sheet into the rinse water and jerked her chin at it. "You could rinse that sheet now."

Frank swirled it through the water. "I'd rather visit with Scandinavians or British people any day. They don't carry all that Russian baggage."

Fictionalizing the lives of family members can be tricky. What if they don't like what you write? Fights could ensue. Your writing could cause a rift in the family. One way to avoid negative responses is to share your journey with the people you're fictionalizing. This is especially advisable if you plan to have your story stick close to the facts. Sharing can reduce the chances of hurting and/or angering people. It may also open a new channel of communication, giving you a better understanding of your emerging story.

I showed parts of Consider the Sunflowers to some of my relatives as I was writing it. They encouraged me to continue and mentioned details of our family life that I had forgotten or never known. Their input enriched the story.

On the other hand, suppose you don't want to discuss your writing with the real people you're fictionalizing? In that case it may be wise to swing the narrative farther away from the facts.

Suppose you'd like to write about your aunt, who abandoned her grandfather on a sinking ship and swam to shore. The trouble is you're sure your aunt will object to having this story told. Could you fictionalize her as a woman who abandons her baby on the steps of a convent? Or as a woman who abandons her mentally challenged brother in Surrey and returns to India to seek her missing husband? If you changed your aunt's name, background, mannerisms, and appearance, she wouldn't be likely to recognize herself.

Despite such drastic changes, your story's main ideas and emotions could still be the same. For example, your main character might:

-Weigh different courses of action.

-Try to justify an action though it seems doubtful or wrong.

-Undertake the action and then second-guess it.

-Wonder later what happened to the abandoned person.

-Try to reunite and reconcile herself with the abandoned person.

Write to understand human nature, to explore why people do what they do. How do their actions reveal their humanity—faulty, frail, sometimes despicable but also unique, interesting, and potentially redeemable? The prospect of discovering universal truths beckons us forward in writing. In fictionalizing, we may make stories even more real, closer to the heart of the human condition.

Elma (Martens) Schemenauer is a Kamloops-based author of many published books. Her most recent is the novel Consider the Sunflowers, published in 2014 by Borealis Press. For details, please visit her website .





Elma Schemenauer CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS: 1940s-era novel about love, Mennonites, faith, & family. Set in Vancouver & rural Saskatchewan. Order from Chapters online or Borealis Press  . More info at  .


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