On Writing True Stories: Guest Post by Ayelet Tsabari

Book Cover The Best Place on Earth

When I was thirty-one, waitressing, and dating the man who would later become my partner, I was assaulted on a Vancouver bus by three drunken teenagers. It was Halloween, and I was on my way to work at a downtown restaurant. I was in a bad mood. Earlier that day I had a fight with Sean, whom I decided to break up with that night.

Like many life-changing events, the assault only took minutes to unfold, four stops from the time I boarded on Commercial Drive and Napier to the corner of Hastings, where my assailants ran off through the bus’s back doors. After the rest of the passengers were transferred to another bus, while I waited for the police in my seat, bruised and shaken, Sean miraculously appeared, stood at the door and asked my driver if he was leaving soon. Everything changed between us after that. He took me to his apartment, cared for me over the next few days. We fell in love.

It was a good story, ripe with fictional potential: it had romance, drama, conflict, character development, a period of change. There was even some metaphor I could work into it: something about trauma, the way it sneaks up on you, like falling in love. At the time, I was new to writing in English, but not new to fiction, which I had written throughout childhood and adolescence. I wrote the story and was happy with it, so I brought it to my fiction class workshop. My classmates didn’t share my enthusiasm. “Too many coincidences,” they said. “It’s not believable.” There was no point in dragging out that old argument, “But this is how it actually happened!” The story didn’t work. It took a couple more years to realize that I was going about it all wrong, that the only way for me to write it was to slip from underneath the protective guise of fiction and tell the truth. All of it.

It was never my intention to write literary (or creative) nonfiction. During my twenties, suffering from an existential writer’s block and spending much of my time travelling, I used to comfort myself that at least I was living, gathering material for a novel or the short stories I would write. But when I started writing again in my thirties, in a new language, I found myself struggling. Fiction wasn’t as easy or as enjoyable as it had been in Hebrew.

One day I came across an issue of Event magazine, which featured the creative nonfiction contest winners. Creative Nonfiction. The term was mysterious, vague, but the stories were as well-crafted and affecting as the best fiction. I was intrigued. Perhaps this new language required a new genre, I thought. I began writing stories from my life in the only way I knew how: using fictional techniques like dialogue, scene, narrative arc. It turned out that what I had been collecting material for all these years wasn’t fiction after all.

It was this new genre and Event’s Nonfiction Contest that gave me my first break: a piece I wrote in English detailing my tumultuous time in the army was published in 2007. My passion for fiction hadn’t died out: I continued making up stories, deriving pleasure from immersing myself in the fictional dream. I was never confused about which story belonged in which genre; it was a simple division. Yet I found that for many people, that line was blurred. After reading from a story about a Canadian teenager shipped to Israel to live with her aunt following her mother’s death, I was approached by an audience member who looked at me sympathetically. “That’s you in the story, isn’t it?” Twice, my stories were published under the wrong heading: fiction dubbed as nonfiction, nonfiction published as fiction.

It made me wonder: did I approach writing in these two genres differently at all? At heart I’ve always been a fiction writer. For the longest time I resisted some of the labels associated with nonfiction; the term essay, for one, brought images of school papers and wordy writing that did a lot of telling. I titled my book of nonfiction You and What Army and Other (True) Stories. It didn’t matter if it sprung from my imagination or from a real-life event. A story was a story was a story.

Annie Dillard once said, “Essays can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” It’s a quote I have passed on to my students as an encouragement to experiment with the form. But lately it occurred to me that you can’t fake it with fiction either. Writing fiction demands the same commitment to honesty and truth. Perhaps that’s why some say that good fiction should read like nonfiction, while good nonfiction should read like fiction.

Friends will find the nonfiction in my book of short fiction, The Best Place on Earth: like my protagonist in "Sign of Harmony," I spent a lot of time in India; served in the same army base as the protagonist in "Casualties"; lost my father to illness during the Lebanon War like the protagonist in "Warplanes." But those characters aren’t me; what happens to them did not happen to me. Readers will find fiction in my nonfiction, because memory is a slippery, shady character, unreliable at best. Because I recreate dialogue to the best of my recollection, add details based on research, photos and other people’s stories. And because at its essence, the process of writing nonfiction is an act of fictionalizing; by turning it into a narrative the real-life event is recreated, history rewritten, memory restructured.

Creative nonfiction offers us a literary representation of lived experience—life made into art.

At the end, as Hemingway once said, it’s about writing one true sentence. And then another. It’s about making people feel something real. And then, perhaps the label you choose to put on your story doesn’t matter at all.

Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Best Place on Earth, available now. She is an Israeli of Yemeni descent; she grew up in Israel, served in the army and moved to Canada in 1998. She is a two-time winner of the EVENT Creative Non-Fiction Contest and has been published in literary magazines such as PRISM, Grain and Room. Her unpublished non-fiction manuscript was shortlisted for the First Book Competition sponsored by Anvil Press and SFU’s Writer’s Studio. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto, where she is at work on a novel. Learn more at www.ayelettsabari.com or follow her on Twitter @AyeletTsabari.

March 25, 2013
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