These days, when I’m not making ‘tea’ for my 10 month old baby (it’s the only word he knows and its multiple meanings include milk, breakfast, lunch, dinner and, possibly, tea), I teach predominantly online creative writing courses. Online courses are a great invention. Both myself and the students are in the comfort of our own homes – well, I’m sitting amongst saucepans, bin parts, mops, pegs and various child proof barricades so not that comfortable but at least I’m near the kettle – and I travel around the world. I have students from Cannes to Cambodia, Newcastle to Nigeria, Australia, America, Afghanistan. I once even had a student from Tonga (I quickly had to look that up on Wikipedia). I say my thanks daily to the gods of technology.
I teach fiction and memoir – or life writing. While they both share similarities in that they employ characters, require a structure and a setting, there is a fundamental difference between the two: quite simply, one is true and the other is made up. That may sound obvious but many people get confused. Life writing is about developing your own voice, about telling your story, or someone close to you. Biography falls into this bracket as well but relies more on interviews and research. Whether we know the person or not it is about presenting a life as honestly as we can (while recognising a certain amount of subjectivity). Fiction, on the other hand, is about developing the voice – or voices – of your characters and telling their story. In fiction you, the author, are not important – you become instead your characters. You, at best, are the director. In memoir you are centre stage. So, it is a matter of choice. Do you enjoy acting? Or do you enjoy stripping? Of course there are grey areas. There are writers who watch and imagine others strip. This grey area is sometimes referred to as ‘faction’ – such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
‘But what about when you’re writing about a friend?’ one of my students on a life-writing course writes in a forum. ‘Why can’t I write from that person’s point of view? You’ve written on my work that you don’t know how I know the person or the event. I wasn’t there but he’s my best friend and he told me everything!’
‘Why didn’t you say that then?’ I suggest, with a smiley. ‘You could easily establish your relationship to him and then it would give you the authority.’ I go back to look at his work and read the first paragraph.
Jose was sitting at a bar in Soho, pounding a straw into a tequila sunrise. His toes curled. The bar was full of semi-naked women and three men – himself, and two suited businessmen ogling a couple of the women who were at their table drinking a bottle of champagne. Jose had simply followed the half-price cocktails sign and only seen the flashing naked woman – too late – as he went down the burgundy carpeted steps.
‘Do you want some company?’ a young woman with green eyes and hair corkscrewing over her naked shoulders. She wore a black holey top that his mother would want to sew up and a too-short skirt. ‘Or are you just here to see the show?’
‘What show?’ he asked.
She smiled. ‘The strip show.’
‘No! No! I’m just having a drink.’
‘Can I join you?’
Jose looked around. Other women sat at the bar talking to each other. No one seemed interested in them – except for the barman who scooted over and asked him what she wanted to drink.
‘I’ll have the same as you please.’ She turned towards him slightly, crossing her left leg over her right.
‘Do you work here all the time?’ he asked. It was hotter than Seville in August.
‘At the moment but what I really want to be is an actress.’
I explain again to the student that I would read this as fiction. It is possible to go inside a subject and use the third person intimate as long as the reader knows that you are reimagining. The point is to be clear. There is a contract between the reader and writer. We read and react differently if we know something to be a true story. And the writer should be clear if he is acting or telling the truth.
‘Tea!’ Leo says. ‘Tea! Tea!’ Louder now. ‘Tea, tea, tea.’
This time I think ‘tea’ means dinner. But before I go and trip over saucepans, I would like to be clear that the above example, despite appearances, is, in fact, an example of acting and no students have been involved.