Carla King interviews Lisa Sellge: Memory, Perspective, and Fact in Memoir and Autofiction. Who Owns The Truth?
Nonfiction Authors Association Podcast | September 7, 2022
“So I think everyone owns their own truth. I think everybody has the right to tell their story through their own filter. And I think writers, like any other artists, take their experiences and pass it through the filter of their own mind.”
Lisa Sellge is the author of Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage (originally titled The Seamstress) as her Creative Nonfiction thesis at the University of Alaska, but she really began writing the book as she experienced it in the pages of her journals in the early 1980s. Lisa’s creative writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Brevity Blog, 3rd Street Beach Reads Volumes 1 & 2, and Literally Literary.
She is currently writing her second work of autofiction that picks up where Narrow Girls left off. She lives in Washington where she works as a content editor, and photographs birds with the same level of obsession she brought to ballet. Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage is her first book.
Find the video podcast, show notes, links, quotes, and podcast transcript below.
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Articles on memoir by Lisa Sellge
- You Know that Book I’m Writing? You’re in it. Brevity Blog 9/9/19
- Writing Lyrical Memoir The Writing Cooperative (Medium)
- Imperfect Memory Women Writing Memoir 3/17/19 (Medium)
- The Value of a Fact Curiosity Never Killed the Writer 1/11/19 (Medium)
- Honoring Experience through Memoir Women Writing Memoir 3/11/19 (Medium)
- Writing a Memoir? First, Read this Book Adventures in Time Travel 12/10/18 (Medium)
Creative Nonfiction by Lisa Sellge
- Brigitte’s Love, Tippping in Atticus Review
- James Fray A Million Little Pieces
- Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on my Grave
- Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
- Mary Karr The Art of Memoir
- Ann Lamott Bird by Bird
- Ann Patchett on Clear and Vivid podcast
- Roy Peter Clark, (Murder Your Darlings) and his new article on truth in memoir
- Dinty Moore’s response to Clark’s article on Brevity
- Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories
Beautiful Voice Memoirs
- Abigail Thomas, Safekeeping
- Mary Karr The Liar’s Club
- Sally Mann, Hold Still
- Marguerite Duras, The Lover
- Ocean Vuong, On Earth we are Briefly Gorgeous
- JoAnnn Beard, Boys of my Youth
- Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle
- Marguerite Duras, The Lover
In this episode…
- How to present autofiction to your audience.
- The difference between nonfiction and autofiction, and the rules that lie beneath each.
- How to own your truth as a memoirist
Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Lisa Sellge and we will be talking about memory, perspective, and fact in Memoir and Autofiction, and who owns the truth. I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find recordings on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube.
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And now I’d like to introduce our guest.
Lisa Sellge is an author and essayist whose work has been published in Atticus Review, Brevity Blog, 3rd Street Beach Reads and Literally Literary, among others. Her novel, Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage began as her meticulously-kept journal during her career as a ballerina, then became a memoir, and then the basis for her thesis for her MFA in Creative Writing–Nonfiction at the University of Alaska Creative Writing and Literary Arts. These days, Lisa calls Washington home, where she lives with her family and long-enduring cat, Scrap, with whom she shares an obsession for birds. Lisa is at work on her second book, picking up where Narrow Girls ends. You can find her online at llsellge.com.
Carla King 0:11
Hi, Lisa. Welcome to the podcast.
Lisa Sellge 2:35
Hi, Carla, thank you for having me.
Carla King 2:38
Well, I’m thrilled. And you know, we have so many memoir writers in the Nonfiction Authors Association, and people are writing legacy memoirs all the time. And wow, it’s quite a job when you’re wrestling with your own life story. Your Goodreads book bio states that you really began writing your book in the pages of your journals in the 1980s, right? So somehow you pulled your journal together as a memoir, but it got turned into a novel fiction which you call autofiction. Did you make that decision? Because it was hard? Or did your publisher make that decision? How did that come about?
Lisa Sellge 3:21
Well, so actually, it was a little bit of both. I was an obsessive journal keeper as a teenager, and went as far as to record actual conversations. I think, in that time, I just couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I was so fascinated with my life that when things happened, I’d go home, and I’d write it down. So I feel very confident that my experiences and my conversations are absolutely nonfiction. But when it came to protecting privacy, and when it came to wanting my book to flow quickly and smoothly the way a story does, I had to make some adjustments. And in speaking with the publisher, when they first picked it up, it was a memoir. I marketed it as a memoir, and in conversations about my concerns with the privacy of the people involved, and also with some of the rules I was breaking in the purest school of memoir writing, I decided that the safest thing to do was to call it–well, to call it fiction–but also just to leave the word memoir off the book. And that’s what I told the publisher, ‘Let’s just not label it anything.’ And so they had a couple of helpful ways that they adapted. The way the book was presented. Basically in the disclaimer, I would say mostly. But it was kind of a joint decision.
Carla King 4:48
Great. And so yeah, we’ll talk about how to deal with real people a little bit later, but you just said the purest definition of memoir. And I do see–we all see–these disclaimers in the front–the times may change to make it a better story, you know, to create a narrative arc, or the names of people in situations are changed. Where’s that line?
Lisa Sellge 5:18
You know, I believe that the line is ever shifting. And it kind of depends on what the highest profile people are saying, and who we are all throwing our vote behind. But I think when you have some of those high profile things, I would be remiss if I didn’t call out James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. That poor guy was so lambasted. But yeah, I mean, he called a completely non-memoir a memoir. And so, nonfiction writers, memoirists–it gave us a bad name. And so I think the tendency was to say–we have to be 100% true and factual in everything we say. We have to, right up front, make an agreement with the reader, we have to say, “this is 100% nonfiction as far as I remember it.” But we also have to acknowledge the fallibility of memory. And I think memoirists can do that on a fairly casual basis. And they can say, “this is, as I remember, to the best of my ability.” But you can also say upfront, “some time has been compressed.” And that might be okay in some schools. You can say, “names of locations, names of people have been changed,” and that might be okay. But I think that the newest responses are more along the lines of–use real names, use real places, research every fact that you are writing down.
And I think just last month, Roy Peter Clark, who wrote Kill Your Darlings, wrote an article about how he wants memoir to be presented. And not long after, Dinty Moore got on Brevity Blog–I think everybody knows that blog as well if you’re a nonfictionista. And he said, ‘What do you all think about this?’ And of course, everybody poured in to say what they thought about that. And because most people 100% agree with him. And most of the people that I have worked with in my MFA program up at the University of Alaska also agreed. I took–in some ways I think it was maybe the scaredy cat way out–to leave memoir out. Because I really don’t feel that anything I said was not an actual legitimate memoir. But at the same time, I broke a couple of these new rules. And so I decided to duck it.
Carla King 7:38
Oh, gosh, okay, you said these new rules. So tell us about those new rules. What are those?
Lisa Sellge 7:42
Well I think the rules that say–you can’t even change a person’s name and call it nonfiction. And I most definitely changed everyone’s name. The other rule that I broke was that I condensed places, because I chose story over fact. Because when I was living this, I felt like I was in a movie. And I wanted readers to feel that movie. And so, if I needed a conversation that happened in Garden Grove, but nothing else happened in Garden Grove but that conversation–everything else happened in Westwood–then I took that conversation off the gym theater in Garden Grove, and I moved it to the Westwood theater. Because I needed the conversation, not the trip, nothing else that happened there. And so at that point, when I made that decision, I was no longer writing factual memoir.
Carla King 8:34
Wow. Yeah, I mean, all the facts just as they happened in memoir doesn’t make for a good story. Sometimes it doesn’t create a narrative arc. In your book, you know, you were a young ballerina. Your book is a little risque, maybe. It’s been said as a young adult, there was an unlikely lover, you were a ballet dancer. I mean, it does sound like a movie. Were you protecting yourself–and other people–from maybe, I don’t know this risque situation that was your life?
Lisa Sellge 9:18
I was protecting others. I own everything that I did in that book. And I think that when memoirists decide who to protect, you really have to look at why you’re writing the memoir. If you’re writing a memoir because you’re pointing fingers, because you’re accusing, because you’re saying, “look at what all these people did to me, I’m the victim.” That’s not really, in my opinion, a good reason to write a memoir. Memoir is about the change, and the awakening of that specific era in your book. And the names that I changed, the protection that I put in there, was definitely for everyone else. I named myself as the decider, the aggressor. The other people in my book are like little paddles in a pinball machine, and I’m the pinball. So, I’m just bouncing off them. They happen to be there. They didn’t ask to be in the story. But I’m not going to expose them, point fingers, or anything. I don’t regret a moment of what happens in my memoir. I hope they don’t either, but maybe they do.
Carla King 10:20
Well, you know, teenagers can make all kinds of mistakes. That’s what we’re all about as teenagers, right? And you were put in a situation, or you were in a situation where you had more exciting things that happened to you–more exciting things than the average teenager. It’s interesting, because a couple of weeks ago, I talked with Cherie Kephart, who said exactly what you were saying– almost exactly–like, writing beyond the blame, and the victimization, and all that. She actually burned her first draft, because it was full of that. And then her second draft was her memoir, and she did write it as a memoir. So that’s an interesting parallel between you two.
Lisa Sellge 11:02
Yeah, I think I think we all have to check ourselves. I always think about Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing On My Grave, that she wrote in the 80s. And it was all about, you know, who did what to her, and she really didn’t take responsibility for any of the things that happened to her. And it was a sensationalist book. And it was on the New York Times Bestseller List, and it was really fun to read. It was very debaucherous. But it wasn’t a memoir of how she changed or grew. It was a memoir of how ugly the ballet world can be. But, you know, she didn’t change any names or any places, and whoever got caught in that novel was quaking, you know. It wasn’t nice to anyone’s privacy.
Carla King 11:54
Yeah. Okay. So you’re coming of age memoir–it involves drugs and sexual exploration, and these are themes that we see in Young Adult writing a lot. So, is your book–and we’ll talk about autofiction novel and memoir in a minute and define those–but what genre is your book? I think it’s just interesting that memoirists have so much to choose from when they’re putting their book into a category. How did you choose? And did you choose? Or did your publisher help you through that? What happened there?
Lisa Sellge 12:31
Well, I did not choose. But I guess, if you look at the age of the narrator, it’s definitely Young Adult/New Adult. And yet, I don’t know that I would rush to put it on that shelf. I think of my book as literary. It’s got a very literary voice. I love that about it. I feel that it kind of goes along with–and not to align myself with Marguerite Duras, obviously–but she was a big inspiration for me in the area of voice. Her narrator is also 15. And you do not see her book The Lover on a New Adult/Young Adult shelf. You see it on Literary Fiction, and she did the same autofiction thing. She didn’t call it memoir, but it’s very obviously a memoir. Things have been written about its memoir aspects. And that, again, is that situation where you have a young 15 year old hooking up with a 25 year old, and it’s a beautiful book. But do you want to condone that to other 15 year olds? Maybe not. I think of my book as–if I have to put an age group with it, which I’d rather not–then I would say is New Adult. Kids are exposed to everything with the internet–my books are not going to teach them anything they don’t know, but I know there will be pushback.
Carla King 13:52
Okay, first of all, you gave me chills because Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is one of my favorite books ever. And I lived in France a while, and I tried to read it in French. It’s actually very simply written, and if you know French at all, you can probably wade through it–it’s beautiful. It also has this–because we’re both creative writing literary majors, we can talk about this–she doesn’t have scene transitions, which is really amazing. It’s kind of abrupt, but it works in a way that most books wouldn’t. And it’s a very short book as well. But I just point to that as a model when I’m working with nonfiction memoir as well. And as for being role models, I mean, you look at the movies and things people see on the internet. Is that really a worry today?
Lisa Sellge 14:55
It’s hard to tell. But I have to tell you, I was a member of a writers group on Facebook, and I had a dozen people read my ARC, Advanced Reader Copy. And one of the people was a mom of teenagers. And she said, ‘I hope you’re not marketing this to young adults.’ And she says, ‘Who exactly is your audience?’ And she wasn’t pleased, because she assumed that since I had this 15 year old narrator, that is who I was writing to. And so I told her the same thing. ‘This is, you know, a literary novel. I hope that people who appreciate words, appreciate this novel, no matter how old they are.’ Because I do feel that people mature at different ages. I think I have certainly met people in their 40s and 50s, who are extremely immature, and I’ve met extremely wise 15 year olds. I felt capable at 15 of making my own decisions. And I’m not the kind of person who now looks back and says, ‘Wow, I was a complete moron back then.’ No, I don’t. I feel that I’m the same person I was. And I felt that the decisions I made were fine. I’m sure there are plenty of people that don’t feel that way. And so I don’t want to come across as a proponent of, ‘this is a great decision for anyone who reads this book.’ Everybody matures at a different pace.
Carla King 16:24
And yet, we have to seem to categorize our books now. Our readers are searching Google and Amazon, and they’re looking for Young Adult, or New Adult, or Women’s, or memoir, or autobiography, or history, or something like that. As a reader, I love Young Adult. I mean, who doesn’t like The Hunger Games </or the Insurgent or Divergent </series and, you know, all those sort of action series. So, I’m working with a couple of authors right now who are wondering whether their book–because it is a coming of age book–should be a Young Adult book, and they are very much being pushed toward that. Do you have any insights on that?
Lisa Sellge 17:08
I did hear from another Young Adult author, and she felt my book was very appropriate for that audience. And she said, you know, ‘you don’t read a lot of Young Adult right now, if you don’t realize that these things come up all the time.’ LGBTQ issues, drug issues, sex issues, maturity, ‘Me Too’ movement. And by the way, this is Ann Howley, she wrote The Memory of Cotton, which just came out, and I actually created her book trailer for her. So we were talking about our books, and I love video editing. So anyway, that just was something that fell in my lap, because we have the same publisher, and she was the one who said, you know, as a Young Adult author that she thought it was quite appropriate for young adults. So because I’ve heard both sides, I lean towards New Adult. But if I had my way, it would be on the shelf with Marguerite Duras. I want to be known for my literary technique, for my voice, rather than my subject matter, I suppose.
Carla King 18:16
Nice. And it’s great that you lived a movie, or that you lived a novel, and now we can all read it as a memoir. So thanks for that. In it, did you play with timelines when you wrote it as a memoir? Did you–we’re talking about your memory and perspective here, and your truth–so I really want to dig into the truth telling aspect of it. I’ve heard people say, ‘You can’t tell the truth unless you write fiction,’ right? You can’t really tell the truth. Have you heard that?
Lisa Sellge 18:55
I haven’t, but it makes sense. Because we are so hesitant to put ourselves on the page. It’s a hard thing to do, to really admit. And I think that, when you first write a memoir about a transitionary period in your life, your first draft might not look anything like your third draft, because in the act of writing memoir, you figure things out. You learn things that you didn’t know about that time about yourself, and about how you reacted to it. And so you might be just telling your story, and then you might go, ‘wow, I didn’t realize that I was actually feeling ABC.’ Or, ‘this person’s perspective of me might have been completely different than my 15 year old journals. Maybe they’re all looking at me and going, ‘Wow, she was a troublemaker.’ If they were going to write their own version of this memoir, how would they see me now? That would be interesting.’
But as long as you’re coming from your own experience, your own perspective and how you felt–I was putting myself into my 15 year old mind, and writing from the perspective of those journals during the body of the work. In the beginning and in the end, I’m an older woman looking back at who I am now. Which is also a Marguerite Duras device. But I think as far as truth–everything I wrote didn’t feel like anything I needed to edit, personally. I am not ashamed or shy of anything I went through. I think it’s common to a lot of people, and telling that truth is an invitation for anyone reading it to acknowledge their own similar experiences, and not feel like they were the only weirdo that went through that, you know. I know I was obsessive, I know that I was different. I know I didn’t really fit in, I know that I was raised really differently than my counterparts there at the studio–I was raised by European parents rather than American. That means, in one sense, we were allowed to mature much faster. We were treated like adults at a much earlier age. On the other hand, we were very, kind of, controlled, I would say. You know, I have a German father and an English mother, and they were extremely protective to the point of, you know, wanting to know everything at all times.
But once it came to ballet, it was kind of out of sight, out of mind, and so that was my freedom. That was where I got to shrug off all of that control. But at the same time, if you put me next to, you know, half my friends, I was much freer. I didn’t have a curfew, nobody asked for my grades, I could date whoever I wanted up to a point. So it was very different. But I know that there are plenty of people out there who felt like the outsider, who made decisions that their friends didn’t make, who will see themselves reflected in my experience, and I think that’s one of the values of memoir.
Carla King 22:04
It is. Because when we read other’s truths, it makes us feel like we are not so alone. And if you own your truth–like who owns the truth, right? I know that, you know, police officers go to a car accident scene, and there’s 10 witnesses, and they all have different stories about how it happened, right? So how do you own your truth? How do you make that decision to just go ahead and do it? Did you just turn off the filters right away? Or did you write to explore your feelings? I just want to mention that–I think Joan Didion–I hope I’m not getting this wrong–said she doesn’t actually really know what she thinks until she starts writing it down. And that is another French concept. And I love that we’re talking about my favorite topic today–French literature. The word essay means to try in French, which is just trying out ideas until you actually get to the point, and to your decision about how you think about something. What was my original question now? Do you remember?
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” ― Joan Didion.
Lisa Sellge 23:13
You were talking about who owns the truth. And, you know, it’s funny that you brought up Joan Didion, because in my critical thesis, I talk about her too. And she said, the more important thing is what it meant to me. Not to be absolutely factual. It’s more important, what I felt about that. So I think everyone owns their own truth. I think everybody has the right to tell their story through their own filter. And I think writers, like any other artists, take their experiences and pass it through the filter of their own mind. And so, three painters are going to look at the same scene, and you’re going to have, you know, Impressionism, and you’re going to have Surrealism, and you’re gonna have whatever that artist wants to show you about what they see. And for my book, coming from an obsessive 15 year old ballerina free for the first time, it’s going to have my spin on it. So I feel that I do own that truth.
And I think Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird </says, exactly, ‘you own your truth.’ And I always think about Tobias Wolff’s mom. She said, ‘if I knew my son was going to be a writer, I might have lived my life a little differently.’ And Mary Karr, she said the same thing. You know, ‘I’m gonna go ahead and tell the truth.’ And you know, I’m sure we’ll talk about talking to other people later, but you do own your truth. And other people can, if they wanted to write a rebuttal memoir, they could. They would own their truth, and maybe I’d be going, ‘Oh, my God, that didn’t happen.’ But whose memory is exact? I know that I’m pretty close just because of how well I kept journals.
But everybody–when writing memoir, we aren’t writing autobiography. We aren’t reporting. I have to say though, that I did research the things that I remembered. For instance, the Crosby, Stills, & Nash concert at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in 1983. I had to ask myself, ‘Did I really remember that David Crosby was arrested on the way for possession of cocaine and couldn’t show up to the concert?’ I looked it up and the only place I could find it is in some really obscure UK newspaper. But in fact, I found the concert, and I found the incident. So, you know, that and a couple other mentions that I have of actual events that were happening in the world at the time–I did chase them down, look them up, verify them. That was before I decided whether or not to just strike memoir from the cover. But for the most part, I did chase it down.
I think the truths that I don’t tell are a couple things. There are people whose behavior I really tamed; I tuned down. I wasn’t as truthful. I think the first time I wrote it, I was. I just blatantly said, ‘Here’s what happened.’ And I left a couple artifacts after saying, you know, ‘this person might read this someday. And do I want them to feel this way about my perspective? Do I want them to even know that I felt that way?’ And the director of the UAA MFA Dr. David Stevenson, he’s a naturalist author. He said, ‘What’s this little artifact you wrote over here? It doesn’t sound like you and your sister had any big reason to want to run away or anything.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I know.’ I went back and I tamed this. But I didn’t take every little thing out. And so I went back and I had to scrub it to make sure that the changes that I made were universal throughout the book.
Carla King 26:51
Wow. Yes. That’s the value of an editor, isn’t it? Did you actually have any fallout from the people that were in your life then for this novel?
Lisa Sellge 27:01
Carla King 27:02
Not yet? It’s pretty new. Tell us the whole name of it.
Lisa Sellge 27:07
It’s called Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage. Now this novel used to be called The Seamstress. It was called The Seamstress for many years. I knew that I was going to write this book when I was 16 years old. I started writing it at 16. I have the long fountain pen handwritten pages, some of which I’ve used verbatim in the book. I think that, at some point, also at Dr. Stevenson’s suggestion–he said, ‘You know, the book’s not about the seamstress. The book is about you.’ And so I went through a couple other title changes. At one point it was called Always in August. And then we realized there was a 1980’s drugstore novel called that.
And so I was talking to the publisher one day and I said, you know, ‘I wrote an essay once called Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage, which is a conglomeration of sentences from an 1800’s George Dylan poem about ballet dancers. And this poem is written out completely in the back of the book. But it’s two lines, kind of flipped. And I thought it was a very intriguing vibe from this poem from the 1800’s. He was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lover, if you don’t know who George Dylan is. He’s kind of a little more obscure than she is. But that was this strange random poem about L.A., and I had written this essay and I threw it to the publisher thinking, ‘Well, let’s just discuss it.’ And she goes, ‘No, that’s it. Story titles are all the rage.’ So that’s what we went with.
Carla King 28:46
Oh my gosh. You know what–we’re actually very close to out of time.
Lisa Sellge 28:52
I’m so sorry.
Carla King 28:53
I’m so sorry too, because I’d just love to keep talking. We can find your writing, and your opinions, and your wisdom, and all your different journals, and your essays, and your stories, as well as your books. Do you want to give us some direction on how we can do that? And if you have any social media handles, too.
Lisa Sellge 29:11
Sure. There’s an article I wrote on Medium under the Literally Literary Publication. And it is called Truth in Memoir.
Carla King 29:25
Oh, lovely. We’ll put that in the show notes on the Nonfiction Authors Association website.
Lisa Sellge 29:31
And then also on Brevity blog, I have an essay on the process of writing this book, and it’s called ‘You know that book I’m writing? You’re in it.’ And what you get to cover was how you talk to the people in your pages. And that article completely covers what I did, and the process that I went through in talking to the people. So Carla, if you end up putting up some links, I’ll give you that link.
Carla King 29:58
Oh, good. Okay, I’ll definitely put those links in, along with the transcript and the names of all the books that you mentioned. Thank you for all those examples. And thank you so, so very much for being on the podcast and inspiring us, as memoirists, to write. Write the truth, and you can turn it into fiction if you want.
Lisa Sellge 30:23
My pleasure. I’m happy to answer any questions anybody has. I love talking shop.
Carla King 30:27
Me too. Thank you.
Lisa Sellge 30:30
Thank you, Carla.
And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at NonfictionAuthorsAssociation.com.
Quotes from our guest…
“And I think that, when you first write a memoir about a transitionary period in your life, your first draft might not look anything like your third draft, because in the act of writing memoir, you figure things out. You learn things that you didn’t know about that time about yourself, and about how you reacted to it.”
“But I know that there are plenty of people out there who felt like the outsider, who made decisions that their friends didn’t make, who will see themselves reflected in my experience, and I think that’s one of the values of memoir.”
“So I think everyone owns their own truth. I think everybody has the right to tell their story through their own filter. And I think writers, like any other artists, take their experiences and pass it through the filter of their own mind.”
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