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I wasn’t shocked when James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be a falsification of the facts of his life. It didn’t surprise me because I  hadn’t believed much about the book in the first place. Why? Because the writer right away failed one of the most basic of storytelling tests: Are these events even plausible? Frey’s book, in fact, was so riddled with such over-the-top events and

unlikely coincidences that I almost immediately lost interest, as we all do when we start to understand we’re being lied to. And this test of our story’s credibility – it is maybe the most important of the three most basic rules — applies equally to all our stories, whether we’re writing them as fiction or memoir. The test is simple and it goes like this:

Does this correlate to my intuition about reality?

Truth As Bedrock

Our ability to establish immediate trust with our readers may be our most

important job as storytellers: when we set out to write a memoir the form all

but demands that we offer proof so our readers believe us. This asks us to tell

what may be a difficult story as bravely and honestly as we’re able and to

persevere even when even when this truth is difficult.

For our readers to really believe us, we must do more than simply

asserting that what we’re saying is factual. The proof they will require is had

when we get them to share the dream of this story with us, essentially using

their minds to dream this same story with us.

This is why we show our stories unfolding instead of simply recounting

their events in what usually turns out to a distant voice, one far removed the

the story as it’s actually happening. To get our readers to experience our stories

with us. To do this we use all the same tools the good storyteller has at hand

to convince us of a tale’s veracity.

But first we must get our readers engaged enough to keep on reading.

How is this best accomplished? We involve our readers by using the following

three tests.

Three Tests

The three elements necessary to story’s being convincing are simple to

remember, the first being the one James Frey couldn’t come up with, at least

for me: Do these character and their actions correlate to our intuition about reality,

that is, are they drawn realistically enough for me to believe in them?

Secondly, do they elicit this reader’s sympathy? Thirdly, can the reader

empathize with these characters, that is, if they are difficult people, can we at

least feel with them to the point where we can understand why they’ve acted

as they have?

Sympathy, empathy, and a correlation to our intuition about reality: these

elements are important to every memoirist. We’re trying to get our readers to

dream the same dream with us and any break in these bones will immediately

awaken them to the fact that this is just some story they’re being told whose

facts may not sound believable.


As memoirists we use the same techniques the writer of fiction does in order

to offer dramatic proof that our stories are true. Two techniques allow the

story to be shown, instead of told, which is what allows narrative time to

transpire all around the reader, demanding this involvement.

You will write scenes and you’ll write the summary of scenes, as it is only in

dramatizing our stories’ events that the writer has the opportunity to make

our characters and the actions they participate in look and sound and feel


And this is why we must all take the trouble our story’s scenes to play

out before the witness of the senses in order for the narrative dream to take

over. We write our scenes to be witnessed by the reader’s senses in order for

them to be convincing. The first person who much be convinced of the truth

of our stories is actually the writer herself.

Fact Merging Into Fiction

The Wrong Dog Dream is the title of the book of nonfiction I am just finished:

this final piece of a three part memoir will be published in the spring of 2013.

I use pieces of my book here to illustrate the difference between writing

scene and summary of scene, as this is technical and is often confusing. We need

to get at the ways these techniques differ and the ways in which they are the

same in order to use each most effectively.

My book is centers on our two dogs, the first being the purebred

English Springer Spaniel my husband and I got when we moved East. Our

second dog is the mutt we rescued from a shelter four days after our first dog

died tragically in boarding. This second dog, who was clearly the wrong dog in

so many ways came home with us to California and is clearly now the dog of

our dreams.


The Narrative Dream

My book is nonfiction in that all its events factually occurred, most of them

happening in more or less the way I’ve said they did. I use the story to

illustrate themes that concern me, particularly how our animals work to unite

a family, as these bonds — in a changing world — are some of the strongest ties

we have.

I have an excellent memory for scene and a good ear for dialogue. I

keep a daybook to remind myself of dates and names, but I write out of the

narrative dream itself, essentially revisiting its scenes in my imagination and

bringing all the vivid details back.

Here’s the dream the title of my book is based on. I offer it here to

show how dreams are perhaps our purest forms of fiction.

Someone in my family dreamed it — no one now remembers who. The dream stems

from something that happened when we were living in the East, and so begins in

what feels solidly fact-based and actual:


We’re just back from a visit to Berkeley, are stopping by the vet’s to pick

our dog up from boarding. We’re all there – my husband, my daughter, my son,

and me, all in that state of high alert known as hypervigilance, as we’re watching the

door in the back of the waiting room. This is where the tech will appear, bringing

our dog to us, in just another little minute.

But here the dreamscape warps, time tilts and everything starts to take too

long: door opening, family standing, brought into slo-mo unison by their crazy love

for this dog, an English Springer Spaniel named Whistler.

Now – as the dog is being led by the tech across the broad expanse of the

tiled floor — the dreamer begins to get that something’s a little off, that the two keep

coming but remain very far away, that this family’s too loud, everyone saying false

and scripted things — Hey, boy! there you are! we missed you, buddy! come on! come here!

good boy! like they are all repeating lines of cartoon dialogue.

Because this is not our dog: it only looks like him, a likeness in both

appearance and behavior so uncanny that even the dog himself seems fooled, as

this dog-who-is-not-our-dog comes wagging his no-tail rump at us, moving toward

the strange family that now stands like a group of statues.

Only the dreamer notices what no one else yet sees: this dog’s a ringer! and

even knows — with a dreamer’s spacious overview — how this mix-up came to be, that

two lookalike dogs, so similar they might be clones, have been switched in the back

in grooming.

This is the wrong dog, the dreamer says aloud to the tech. Our real dog’s the one

in back, but the dreamer is frozen and can’t seem to get the words out and tries

again to speak to the tech, who keeps leading this dog-who-is-not-our-dog across the

waiting room.

So now the dreamer’s saying it more and more urgently, Wrong dog! wrong

dog! but locked together in the paralysis of sleep, lips, teeth and tongue, all muscles

of the dreamer’s face, are stilled, words slurring as they’re said– wwwwrn daaaaaa!

wwwrrrnn daaaaaaa! – so no one hears and no one pays attention.


This scene offers direct testimony of the dreamer, who stands in as our

storyteller in taking on the job of getting the reader to participate in this scene

with her. Because the dream is written vividly it seems to cross into the

territory of truth. I believe this dream, though it isn’t actually the one that

someone originally dreamed.

Because I write both fiction and nonfiction, I know the task in both

fiction and memoir to be the same. I study the matter of narrative veracity in

my own work, as well as the work of others in the year-long workshop I run

through the writers’ community of Fishtrap.

We study the best ways to tell the story that seems to be presenting

itself in terms of the three T’s (Time, Tense, Tone) and the three P’s (Person,

Point-of-view, Perspective). Change one of these structural elements and you’ll

immediately change the story in small but very important ways.

We figure out how our stories want to plot themselves, plot being the

word we use to describe a book length’s work organizational principles, that

is, the order in which the stories scenes are presented.

We work to show the story directly in SCENE or – if concision is

required — we show a SUMMARY of scene to get at a sense of the habitual

nature of so much of a story’s narrative time.





Because the book centers around our animals, I use the two cats to show how

our oldest son’s house was (barely) functioning right after he and his wife

brought their twins home from the hospital to join their three year old. What

you find here is not one specific scene but a summary of several scenes in

which the hours of that one holiday were very much alike day to day.


Sean and Heida have two cats, but these are almost only tangentially their cats, in

that they seem to belong as much to other people on their street. The first is called

Molly, the other is one of those nameless Volunteer Cats, who’s called the Black

One or Sweetie, and who may eat at their house but also be fed by others in the

neighborhood, who probably call her something else. It was right after the twins

came home from the hospital that Sean’s declared their Pet Free Zone, and threw

both cats out.

These are Outside Cats, Sean said, from now on.

So now they lived outside, which is find as the weather’s mild in Berkeley

except the Outside Cats didn’t exactly seem to know it or they did know it, but

would then forget.

If they came in they’d start screaming immediately, as if the house was now

strange to them, and Sean would appear from wherever he was, helping Heida with

the babies, or trying to get Hazel to be, and throw them out.

This is a Pet Free Zone, he’d tell us. The cats are to stay outside. Once

outside, the cats sat on the window sill under the cover of the front porch and

would mewl.

One of those visiting and it was the holidays and the new babies had arrived

so there were always just so many people visiting, would hear the cats crying and,

thinking they wanted to be inside, since it was raining, would go to the door to let

them in. They’d dash inside, then see the house completely over crowded with all

these random people and baby equipment and Christmas tree and presents and

scream to be let out again.

Upstairs Sean hears the cats being let inside and runs halfway down the

stairs to issue the dictum, once again, telling the new arrivals: They’re Outside

Cats, then goes back upstairs to help again.

A moment later another member of the Grandparents’ Committee, and –

this being Berkeley there are TEN of us — arrives and, without knowing the new

rules, lets the mewling cats back again, while Sean, upstairs, yells down the stairs,

Will someone down there please keep them out!

As we find out later, Heida, who hasn’t slept, is beside herself over the cats

going in and out, as whenever a cat comes in and cries her breast milk comes

gushing out.

The story, which I’ve told as I remember it, doesn’t happen to be

entirely true, though didn’t write it to perpetrate a falsehood. Sean has since

told me their tabby cat, Molly moved out of the house of her own volition

when Sean and Heida brought their first baby home from the hospital. When

he and Heida began feeding Molly on the front porch the cat they call Black

One simply joined her.

Those cats still sit on the outside sill of our kids’ living room window as

have for years, still crying – when people are over – as if they’d like to come




This scene below offers a piece of the Wrong Dog story in the first person

present tense, used to create the sense of one very specific moment in which a

major decision is reached.

Because the reader can see and hear this sense as it’s unfolding, he or

she can understand how it was that my husband and I ended up getting a dog

almost immediately after our Springer died, in that most folks will not only

feel sympathy, they’ll also empathize.

I think I felt the need to write the scene because I found its events

unlikely, that people as reasonable as my husband and I usually are would

behave as irrationally as we did, but the loss of our dog was in many ways a

world shattering event and you don’t know how you’ll react in crisis.


Saturday, early afternoon. Hearing my husband on the stairs I quickly click away

from the site where I’ve been staring at the hypothetical dogs. I’m guessing he’s

coming upstairs to remind me to eat lunch.

Look what I found, holding a sheet of paper out to me.

I drag my eyes from the ghost dogs on the mesmorizing screen to glance at

what Jack’s holding out to me: a soggy sheet of heavily inked typing paper that’s

printed with the still-wet image of smiling black puppy. Tongue lolling, starburst of

white on his chest, pup standing tall on long straight hindlegs, peering out over the

top of a yellow plastic laundry basket. This is a dog that looks so little like an

English Springer Spaniel that it might be a different species.

What is it? I ask.

What they have so much of around here, Jack says. Greyhound, obviously, a

little border collie. Maybe a dash of Lab?

The puppy just looks ungainly, head narrow enough to call arrow-shaped,

thin face dominated by a nose so long it looks a little ridiculous, those negligible

greyhound earflaps?

He looks intelligent, Jack says.

You think? I say.

Do you like him? Jack says.

Do you?

Fourteen weeks, Jack goes on. Last of a litter of four born in the shelter, his

mom dropped off pregnant there — someone’s just adopted her so now he’s there

all alone. And get this, he’s only a few miles away, down past of the turnoff on 522

at the Morgan Country Humane Society.

I’m now staring opening at Jack. Let me get this straight, I say, you are

seriously considering our going out to adopt this dog?

He’s only a few minute away, Jack says. How would it hurt to drop in to

have a casual little visit with him?

Jack, I say, we’re not well enough to drop in for a casual visit with some

puppy in some shelter. Our dog died just four days ago, we’re still traumatized! Our

judgement is impaired, this is exactly why they tell you No Major Changes.

My kids’ father is a psychoanalyst. No Major Changes is what he’s always said,

No Major Changes being what all Helping Professionals will tell you in a situation

like this.

But now as my husband face’s is settling imperceptibly, I see, jaw tightening

as it will whenever he feels challenged. He has just dug in, I realize, Jack’s being as

tired of The Helping Professionals as he is all the rest of The Experts.

I think we should look at him, Jack says very quietly

All right, I say, but if we go meet this dog we will be bringing him home

with us, you do realize?

It’s a beautiful spring day, Jack says, wildflowers out, great day for a hike in

the state park at Cacapon. All I’m saying is that it will not hurt us — along the way –

to drop in to check out this shelter.

All right, I say, but I need to wash my face.

He really is handsome, isn’t he? Jack says, showing me the page again.

I’d more call it cute, I say, to not become all overly articulate and critical, to

not say, Well he’s actually ill-proportioned, he looks awkward, legs too long and

spindly, also his eyes don’t seem to match, but I say none of this aloud. Jack has

obviously already fallen in love with this puppy and so cannot see what he really

looks like.

I’ll need to do something about my hair, I say. I’ll need to change my

clothes. Can I have twenty minutes?

Sure, and while you’re at it I’ll go fill out the on-line application – they

suggest your doing it ahead of time, in case several parties are interested in the same

dog and ….

Several parties? I ask.

….and our application being already in will put us first in the electronic

queue. What at you laughing at?

I’m just thinking we might require some new word to explain this dog setup

in terms of pack heirarchy, in that he’s is the opposite of the pick of the litter, so

he’s — what — the runt? or we might call him Worst in Show?

I’d don’t know what you’re talking about, Jack says. This is objectively one

good-looking dog.

Sure he is, I say. But you realize the kids will be making some great big deal

of our getting a dog like this as it shows we’re so completely pathetic that we’ll fill

our square peg with any round hole?

So, my husband says.

Which does make us needy and desperate, you’ve got to admit. We’re as

bad as Chuck Miller’s dad stopping at the Safeway on his way home from Chuck’s

mom’s funeral and meeting that woman standing behind him in the check-out he

married two weeks later.

They’ll get over it, Jack says.


I hope these demonstrations of technique have been helpful in our ongoing

quest for the narrative truth.



Jane Vandenburgh is the author of two novels and two recent books on

nonfiction, her memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century, and her book

on the craft of writing a book-length narrative entitled Architecture of the Novel:

Plot, Story, and the Mechanics of Narrative Time

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