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Why I Write

The streets of my homeland, Latvia, the year that I was born.

First and foremost, I write because I can. The same way that it feels good to exercise my body, it feels good to exercise my brain. And since I have been born with more talent for the latter–not to push this mind-body dichotomy too far–I do much more of that. The part assigned to turning thoughts and feelings into words, in particular.

Not that I was one of those who knew from an early age that she would write. Quite the opposite. Though I became proficient in English soon after I arrived in the States as a five-year-old war refugee, it took me a couple of decades to find my voice. Similar to what the narrator in my story “Winter Wonderland” notes after a teenaged girl experiences an uncomfortably close call with alcohol poisoning:

The girl drags a large-toothed comb through her hair, wraps a loose robe around her slim body and starts to slouch down the stairs. She has found nothing worth saving in what she had written about the poem. So much for in vodka veritas, she says with a smirk. At no point in her reluctant descent does she stop to consider how long it can take some people to learn to say what they sense. That without repeated exposure to alcohol or other intoxicants it can be generations.

That it took so long, and even longer–additional decades, in fact–to see writing as a primary occupation, might be a blessing in disguise.

For one, by the time that I was ready to write something that was not work-related I had no shortage of material. When I applied for my Defense Department security clearance at age 40, I could list 32 separate residences spanning two continents and several of the United States. (Subsequently, I stopped counting.) I had taken my formal education to the PhD level and my informal one in diverse directions. I had hung out with folk from the highest echelons of academics, government and private enterprise as well as some from life’s lowest. And I had passed most of life’s major milestones, including childbirth, marriage, divorce and the death of relatives and friends.

For another, I had reached a point where I was no longer constantly immersed in some tumultuous situation or other. Or even several serious ones, simultaneously. Looking back, this mattered more than I had thought. As Margaret Atwood notes in her novel Alias Grace:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

Finally, I had framed sufficient reasons to justify why I should take the massive amount of time that would be required to create a coherent body of work and why even one stranger should take the time to consider even one small portion of it. I can readily cite the following three, though, doubtless, there are more than those:

1. Growing up, I stood mute as Americans condemned the atrocities of their former enemy, Nazi Germany, but turned a blind eye to the unspeakable acts–far greater in both size and scope–of their former ally, the Soviet Union. Around the time that I turned 21, I spoke out against the draft and the Vietnam War but said little when I was told what I, as a woman,  could and could not do with my own body. And the child that it bore. Approaching middle age, my role as a Defense Department consultant specializing in WMD caused me to be cautious about expressing my concerns that my adopted country was on a collision course with long-ignored segments of the world. When I came to see that suffering was made all the worse when it was silenced, writing became became one logical way to alleviate it.

2. My father had died in 1995; my mother in 2006. I was their only child, and the only other family member with whom I had lived, my maternal grandmother, was long gone. What other relatives remained after waroccupationinternment and emigration were scattered around the world. The concept of family, to which I had heretofore assigned minimal importance, suddenly loomed large. I became aware not only of how remarkable my own particular one was but also how many people of that time–those who preceded, followed and were included in what, in the United States, is called the “Greatest Generation”–also were. And how important it was to preserve their amazing stories.

3. Along the same lines, I had started to take action to located the son that I gave up for adoption at birth in 1966. That was no easy matter, since such records are sealed and I have no talent whatsoever for navigating bureaucratic labyrinths. I made little progress, eventually gave up and have only recently–and tentatively–started again. But what was clear was that, apart from the photographs, some of which have survived from the turmoil of the early 1900s and travelled across two continents, I had to be able to tell him the stories that would give him, at long last, his history. And since I never listened carefully when others told me mine and have trouble remembering what I experienced myself, these, of necessity would need to take the form of fiction.

While these are personal reasons, I believe that what I have to say has broad relevance. I hope that you will read what is presented in the pages of this site and follow the posts, where I and guest authors will address the subject of displacement and the writing process.

Fact or Fiction?

Thomas Keneally in 2009, revisiting research papers related to his award-winning 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark. (Source: NSW State Library)

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a fact is “a thing that is indisputably the case.” I like this definition because it does not grant facts an independent existence; rather, it implies that some sort of consensus is required. Since dispute is possible, facts have a precarious existence. The same source also gives fiction a dependent definition, making it, more or less, an antonym of fact. But if facts can be disputed, just where does that leave fact relative to fiction? Even with my scientific background, I am forced to concede: not all that far.

Some make a distinction based on imagination or intent. But a book such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, based on extensive historical records and eyewitness accounts with mainly the dialog qualifying as intentional imagination, is classified as a novel. (In this case, one worthy of winning the 1982 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.) Yet his Searching for Schindler: A Memoir, similarly fact-based and full of dialog not likely transcribed verbatim from notes, is classified as nonfiction. Which makes the distinction, if not moot, a matter of degree.

Early in my writing career, I resolved to call everything “fiction.” Even though I was one of those write-what-you-know writers. Even though the stories that I was preparing for the collection Cold and Hungry and Far From Home were an attempt to approximate the truth of what had transpired in my life and that of those around me. Even though when I really let loose in works such as my novel Anna Noon, every character, every location was initially based on what I had actually encountered at some point in my life. Even the imaginary cat was based on a cat I had first created for my mother’s amusement.

But I did more than apply a particular label; I–first unwittingly, then deliberately–adopted an identifiable style that told the reader, “Hey, this is just a story.” The narrator of my first published story, “Making Soup,” was a one-month-old infant. The narrator of my second novel progressively encroached on the tale he purportedly told about the eponymous Anna until she became all but invisible. This and more puts what I do in with postmodern literature, which gained prominence during the post-World War II period and is represented today with works such as Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge.

This makes it possible for me to warn readers away from expecting any more than “fictional truth,” sufficiently powerful in its own right. But, as Michael Riffaterre, who has addressed this topic exhaustively in regard to works of intentional imagination, acknowledges, “All literary genres are artifacts.” This, I maintain, includes essays (and, more recently, blog posts), which, while often written from the author’s personal point of view, frequently encompass the factual.

When I started writing essays a few years ago (and editing those written by others), I immediately gained a reputation as a fierce fact-checker. But while doing that, I was always aware of how deceptive facts could be. Of how shaded my truth became after selecting some facts and excluding others. Even after selecting one word over another, perhaps simply because I liked how it sounded in a sentence.

So, reader beware: if it comes from me, in whatever form, I would prefer that you consider it to be fiction. Even this particular piece.

Note: Since I posted this piece, I came across an interchange between Geoff Dyer and Matthew Specktor that had been excerpted in McSweeney’s from The Paris Reviewwhere Dyer also refuses to make a major distinction between nonfiction and fiction, insisting that “the two are bleeding into each other all the time.”