Unreliable Narrator

“When you’re from somewhere else, you think there’s a promise to California. I don’t know if it’s some cellular thing–like your ancestors in the wagon train only made it as far as Ohio and you’re completing the journey–or it’s the Beach Boys or the Beat poets or Baywatch.” from Pretty by Jillian Lauren

This epigraph is my favorite quote from this book I’ve been reading all week. It’s the quote I copied into my journal because it’s something I wished I had written. When I return to my time living in California, I’ll use these sentences. Nothing disappointed me more than California. So true. Gorgeous, that quote.

I discovered this author by listening to a writer’s podcast somebody told me she loved. And that I should consider going to one of the podcaster’s retreats. I looked up the retreats online and they cost 10k. Sans your airfare and lodging. As I listened to this person who was truly trying to give me advice, I thought “Ten grand. Sure. Just like that. For a week. How do I start a business like that?” This is usually how my mind starts to work when I see somebody making a living–a fine living at truly–off of something I think is overpriced and somewhat of a scam. Somehow if you have the phrase “life coach” somewhere in your bio, for instance, you have the keys to the kingdom as an entrepreneur these days it seems. More power to you. I judge you not. I’m jealous.

Reading this book, as well as commenting on the work of a few others, has me thinking about the level of truth in memoir. Pretty is the redemption memoir of a junkie stripper who found her way in the world, and she uses this lovely refrain where she repeats a phrase that seems religious, like a prayer, throughout the book. No spoilers from me. She shares a story of her life through the words of an untrustworthy narrator–my favorite–her memory. Midway through the book, I discovered something I wrote last year is going to be anthologized by our local celebration, Whatcom Reads. It’s my first publication in five years. Five years. Five years. Like the Bowie song. You know you hear it. Well, I suppose I had a short piece in a local bike zine a year ago, but it’s not in digital form and I agreed to not be attributed. Totally love that little story because of the editor’s work.

So you know. Five years ago ferda print. Felt like a big deal I even sent it in, really, I didn’t expect that it would get chosen. I’m honestly quite shocked. Maybe they didn’t get enough submissions. Hard to say.

Part of the whole let’s-read-together-as-a-community is a reading at the local indie bookstore where I used to work, and that feels pretty wonderful. Magic. I was as an employee there in the late 90s and I was a waitress in the adjacent restaurant before that. It’s where I got used to presenting in front of people by introducing authors. I was that person who read the author’s bio, made sure the microphone worked, refilled the toilet paper in the bathroom, and reminded everyone in the audience the author’s books were for sale. This anthology I will read from isn’t for sale, and there will be free copies at the public libraries in town. It’s wonderful. Spectacular. Fully amazing.

It’s pretty truth-y. Not at all the truth.

Here’s the thing. Here’s the hill I die on alone among some writers.

Non-fiction and memoir? They are all fiction.

I think all book genres are the smoke and mirrors created by sales and marketing folks. Where a book belongs on a shelf is decided by the market. Where you can sell a book to people who will buy it. Even libraries aren’t the holy spaces devoid of the market forces of capitalism. Algorithms of the digital market prove my point. Whether you like it or not.

Yes, non-fiction, I know, can have historical references. Sure. Footnotes and citations people can verify. Cross-references. Ideas you can look up. It’s what we have decided to believe is true as writers. What is true to publish. Ask any historian and they will tell you why we tell the stories we tell.

And yes, I know, the word memoir is French in origin. A denotation for the word memory (masculine, mémoire). It’s what we have decided, as writers, to be the story. The narrative. The memory. The thing. In memoir, your only citations and footnotes are the details you choose to remember and put in print. And it’s the thing that is always based on a true story. Look close. The phrase based on is not the same as the verb is. We are all unreliable narrators. Of our own stories.

I’m a little obsessed with memoir for reasons I can’t explain, but I do know that once I tell the story of this book I’m working on, I can let my brain go into the realm of novels. Fiction. Until then, what I’m writing is based on a true story.

This piece that will appear in the local anthology is a scaled down, slightly embellished chapter of my book, and it’s origin is from my darkest place in 2019. I decided to toy with the saddest memories and feelings just to see how awful, brutal, and sad I could sound. Like a game. Some people play video games or fantasy football; I play with the words. I didn’t think about what it would be like for it to get published and what it will be like to read it aloud. What it will be like for strangers and friends who might read it, and think, “Faaaawwwwwk. Whoa. Hole. Lee. Shit. That’s heavy.”

I can’t reprint it here until it’s been published, and then I get the rights back (the licensing I did consider, that’s my jam), so let me write here about what influenced me.

At the time that I wrote this soon-to-be-published (!) piece that’s me/not me, I was reeling from reading Nothing Good Can Come From This by Kristi Coulter. Her epigraph, from the start, made me sit on the floor in Powell’s bookstore and start reading. I turned the page and saw this:

photo attribution: c’est moi

I sat there for an hour. And read. I stayed up most of the night in my hotel and read the rest. Then I looked her up online and read what I could there.

In this book, she contextualizes her problems with drinking and her trials and tribulations with men with details about Paul Westerberg’s life, the lead singer of The Replacements. A band, I believe, that would (should) have been just as big as REM in the 80s had those dudes not struggled with the drink as much as they did. One of my favorite bands. They should have blown INXS, to cite a much lesser successful band of the era, off the fucking charts. A textbook rock-n-roll tragedy.

Coulter’s book slayed me. It’s so brutal. Honest. Funny. Hard to read at times. Sad. I wanted to see if I could do something like that while I was sorting out my own relationship with alcohol. Could I sit with what I was going through with my own questions about drinking–what I’ve nicknamed my Party Girl–and write like Coulter? (tl;dr No.)

So I decided to try. For fun. I wrote the chapter titled “True North.” It’s the chapter that will appear in this local anthology, and it’s written in the saddest voice I could muster. I poured every once of depression I could feel into that submission. Like I channeled every sad version of myself. My selves. As I revised, I thought to myself, How can I make this harder to read? What more can I say to tell the saddest story about breaking up with alcohol? How can I write the saddest love story gone wrong using this topic? Can I scale down 4,000 words into 2,000 and not lose the story? What, inside me, to quote The Replacements, is achin’ to be?

When I clicked submit, I felt like I lost twenty pounds. I have, in fact, lost 23 pounds since I’ve stopped drinking, so you know, there is some literal and figurative truth there. After clicking submit, I listened to Within Your Reach, danced around my office, and promptly went on to the next thing. Felt so light. Fuck it. Why not? That light feeling. The clarity. I remember feeling joyous that I’m back in the game of submitting my work for publication. And now, faced with the reality that this story is going to be out there, I’ll have to own it.

I’ll have to look people in the eye and assure them that I am indeed satisfied. And that writing is just sometimes you being me while I’ll be you.

Can’t hardly wait.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, #OER, professional development, adult education & writing. Travels to talk about Open Education during the workweek. Advocates for more girls on bikes during the weekend. Bike racer w/ @queensofdirt A Memoir.
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