True Fiction

A few weeks ago a friend posted this picture true fictionon Facebook and asked whether it bothered anyone else? My friend is humorous, she writes humour, but it’s not always obvious to me when she’s being ironic. I asked, “Does it bother you?” I didn’t get a reply. Then other Facebook friends piled on with comments that, although funny at times, were written to ridicule whoever had come up with such an ignorant sign. Guffaw, guffaw. (In their defense, not that they need any from me, I  am certain their conscious intentions were not meant to ridicule the person who had written the sign, but the sign itself. But, I ask: in this instance, can we actually separate the two? If it were any group of FB people other than writers commenting, perhaps I would have had an entirely different emotional response to the whole thing.)

I have to admit it bothered me. I felt like an outsider on this thread, and although I am certain my friend, and even the Facebook friends who posted their comments, plus other friends in real life would say, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”; and Mark Manson would say, “Your giving away one of your fucks when, really, who gives a fuck what all those other people were doing?”; the truth is, I did give a fuck. And I was right to–but it was for the wrong reason.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but today it came to me: There is such a thing as True Fiction–it’s called a Roman à clef.

A roman à clef is “a novel about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction.” [Wikipedia entry on roman à clef.] Now, maybe, the sign in this bookshop or thrift shop or wherever this bookcase of books for sale resides was wrong in its naming of these particular books. But no one, and certainly not I, on that thread of writers mentioned the possibility of true fiction being a legitimate category.

By definition a novel is a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. I’m pretty certain this assumed definition of a novel is what raised everyone’s guffaws to a raucous decibel of ridicule for this poor sign.

Now, it is very likely that ridiculing the notion anyone could think “true fiction” is a real category pricked my personal sensibility. Because I am attempting to write, among many other writing projects, exactly that: True Fiction, a roman à clef, using my parents’ extraordinary talents and lives, together and apart, as a jumping off point to write about my time as a teenager in London during the “Swinging Sixties.” (Which, along with fashion and music, also generated the term “Swingers”.)

So what did I see again for myself today when I remembered roman à clef ? I saw the importance of trusting one’s instincts and not becoming intimidated by the crowd.

“What?! You?! Intimidated by the crowd”? I can hear the incredulity of people who know me on Facebook, and in real life.

“Yes, I.” I am intimidated by a great many things. Feeling like an outsider, even though I hate to run with the crowd merely for the sake of company, triggers this most strongly. Because I grew up an outsider in my home country–being a brown-skinned girl in a then predominantly white, largely xenophobic, country, whose monarchs had colonized the greater part of the world before the sun finally began to set on the Empire.


When I watch something like this glorious performance by Sarah Connolly it awakens mixed feelings inside my body and heart. On the one hand, I remember standing in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall for the last night of many a Prom, singing, with all my heart, Rule Britannia. On the other, I was always an outsider in England, because of the colour of my skin. Always. I can’t count the number of times people asked, “Where are you from?” And when I said, “London,” the questions would escalate from, “No, where were you born?” [“London.”] to “No, where were your parents born?”

I have this sense that if we were able to see our internal culture through a specimen of our bone marrow under a microscope, mine would be British through and through, in spite of my parents’ ancestry. I don’t know if this is because all outsiders attempt, on an unconscious level, to assimilate themselves so fully that they will “pass”; or if it’s because, by and large, in my family home the most important thing was talent and the future it could create; rather than the past and what tradition naturally carries within it: something unchanged and passed down from generation to generation, with the goal of preserving it forever.

My parents were all about breaking with the moulds of the past and creating their own. They were often outsiders–foreigners–to the majority of English people who didn’t know them. But, in the wisdom of Mark Manson, they didn’t give a fuck. And, so, the only real culture I know is that of my birth country and not the one of my ancestors.

Things have changed in England, a bit, it’s true: there are now too many people “of colour” for things not to have shifted a little. But the underlying belief that the Empire still exists, and that people of colour (a strange turn of phrase) are somehow intellectually inferior, still pervades my home country. But, I digress.

Trust in oneself. That’s what I felt strongly to write about today.

Perhaps the realization “True Fiction,” under the banner of roman à clef, was triggered by an email I received this morning from my playwright friend, Seth Michael Donsky. [Take note, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, this post could well be about hidden motives, although I have an actual post to write about that particular topic. It’s certainly a post about Meg Rosoff’s colander.]

To help my friend understand that he knows exactly what he needs to know in order to write the play he wants to write, I suggested an old writing exercise to him before Christmas: In his case, take any play he admires, and type or write out the whole thing, including the stage directions. For a while he argued he didn’t want to waste his writing time to do this. I understood, because he has a crazily busy schedule. But I really believe in this particular exercise. And so, eventually, after a certain amount of persuasion on my part that the benefits would outweigh the loss of personal writing time and, in the long run, return rewards to him in spades, he chose Noel Coward‘s Hay Fever.


Sometime last week, as he was transcribing Hay Fever, he had a major breakthrough with his own play. Then, this morning, he wrote that although he wasn’t yet convinced he could write this or any other kind of script, he no longer believed that he couldn’t.

That was the whole point of doing the exercise: To understand and experience for oneself, how powerful the subconscious is–that it will give us everything we need, in order to express the creativity that we, uniquely, have appeared in the stream of Life to realize and share with Life itself. That everything we need is already inside us. Not the thing itself; that has yet to be born and fully realized. But the wherewithal to make it happen is inherent in every human being. I am so proud of my friend for having the trust in himself to do this exercise, even if it began as blind faith and trust in another.

Trust is the bridge that leads us across the uncharted waters of our own creativity, to the possibility of producing something that is uniquely us.


7 Responses

  1. “My parents were all about breaking with the moulds of the past and creating their own.”

    And so does their daughter, as continually and as instinctively as we all reach for water, this reaction being a prime example! Go with it.

    I saw this sign/meme several times, and never knew what to say, because my first reaction was “I know what that means.” Right down in my bones. I felt it perfectly when I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Ladder of Years, and The Things They Carried, and more, I’m sure. There is more than one kind of True Fiction, I feel, and I know I will come upon more of it yet. Letting myself use this knowledge gets me to a place where my own memoir-y work becomes better, and truer, too.

    1. “There is more than one kind of True Fiction.”

      I felt something like that, too, Exploding Mary when I first saw that sign. I couldn’t explain then. But when I wrote “Does it bother you?” I was really saying, “I’m thinking it doesn’t bother you, as in, you know that somewhere–if not on this particular bookcase–there is such a thing as True Fiction.” But I think I was wrong. Not that I believe it bothered the writer so much as made her laugh at “the silliness of its notion.” But I have a feeling I anticipated (maybe even expected) a response of camaraderie. When it didn’t show up, I felt I was standing alone in my sense of “Nothing wrong, weird, or bothersome about this sign, at all.”

  2. I originally made this comment on FB, but then (after Shelley’s prompting) I realised that I SO MUCH prefer getting comments on my blog than on my FB page. So, here it is again. Sorry for the repetition. 😉

    Nice post, Shelley. I stand by my original statement that this sign bothers me, although I was, indeed, being humorous when I posted it — largely because it didn’t occur to me that anyone would find it an appropriate genre delineation.

    The very definition of the word fiction is something (in literary terms, a work of prose) that is false, imaginary, or untrue. To team the word fiction with the word true is to create an oxymoron.

    I would disagree that a roman a clef novel is true fiction. It’s a novel with a key; a work of non-fiction that uses a cipher to disguise it as a work of fiction. If that sounds like true fiction to other people, then that’s all well and good and more power to them. But the term still bothers me, in much the same way that the term ‘raw toast’ would bother me.

    1. I think I have much broader definitions of what constitutes writing than many writers I know and certainly broader than many industry experts. I don’t really compartmentalize writing until I absolutely have to. For all the same reasons I encourage writers to write their vision, not somebody else’s. There is, as Exploding Mary said for herself, something untroublesome to me about the seeming oxymoron of a category called True Fiction.

      True Fiction is something I can feel in my body and therefore it could be true, even were I to wrap the definition of a roman a clef into as tight a coil as you propose.

      Perhaps it’s because I believe all fiction is true on some level, even when the premise is entirely made up. Because it attempts to explore a question or a topic, or way of entertaining ourselves, that is real to us.

      So, yes, I really wouldn’t have a problem with a label on a bookcase that read True Fiction. Even if I didn’t believe any of the books on that particular case were able to live up to the category.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this. (Maybe. It depends on those hidden motives.) I remember the post about the sign. I’m fairly sure I didn’t comment, so I didn’t see the way the thread played out. I felt I was supposed to be bothered by the sign, and I can see Jo’s point of view. Sure. Fiction=not true. And as such, true fiction is silly.

    But as me and what I like to write and to read, I have no trouble with the label true fiction. I struggle with many writing labels, and I resist ascribing a label to my own writing. It’s unfortunate (in my view) that I have to tell people a category. I didn’t comment on Jo’s post because I didn’t want to make fun of the sign and I didn’t want to defend it.

    So, I’m pondering hidden motives now.

  4. Truth is relative. There is no absolute truth. Labels and genres are very useful for comparing and contrasting but can constrict the creative process.

    There is truth is all fiction and fiction in all truth (or, as my mother would say “the truth lays somewhere in the middle”).

    My life is a true fiction, as it were, and that’s a good enough title for my autobiography, should it ever be written.

    Tangentially, I was so pleased to view that clip of Maggie Smith as Myra Arundel in Hay Fever. I just finished typing the text word for word. I guarantee you she and her scene partner played the scene exactly as it was written and yet it is alive in ways that one can not perceive by merely reading it. It is an exquisite example of how the best dramatists write scenes that contain an ineffable vitality that shines in the hands of gifted directors and actors.

    1. What you say about how the best dramatists write scenes that come alive in the hands of gifted actors and directors is what makes theatre such a fantastic vehicle for what Brian Eno called Scenius. It has nothing to do with senior citizenship (in case you were wondering). It was always the thing that stoked me when I worked as a director, how the actor breathed life into the words of a great play. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, as you know from your own directing and acting experiences. And now your experience working with actors as a playwright. That’s interesting, don’t you think? That over time words on a page, which represent a larger vision of emotion and action in the playwright’s head, an actor and director draw the invisible part of the play out of the words and stage directions and make them visible. It’s where fiction and reality intersect and fuse to create something beyond itself, in the minds and emotions of the spectator, or audience. Theatre is a full contact sport.

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