Today’s guest blogger is Carlene Bauer, author of the thoughtful and engaging memoir Not That Kind of Girl (published by Harper in 2009 and now available in paperback and ebook from HarperPerennial). Jeff Shartlet, author of The Family, called her memoir, “Truthful, intelligent, and engrossing. This may become a generation's definitive account of books and the city.” Ms. Bauer recently published her debut novel, Frances and Bernard, which was called “graceful and gem-like” by the Boston Globe. In her guest post for Book Club Girl she reflects on what it was like to reimagine herself a fiction writer after starting her career firmly in the factual world.
When I was in high school, coming to the conclusion that I wanted to be a writer, I imagined that I would be some kind of journalist who would occasionally write fiction. Since we are talking about the late 80s and early 90s, I had an idea I would be a Rock Journalist, and perhaps write for Rolling Stone, Spin, or the Village Voice. I was also thinking practically, because I came from parents who had grown up working-class: one had to make a living, and journalism would pay. When I think about this now I laugh (and cry). Journalism? Paying you a living wage? But I digress. Then I got to college and learned about Joan Didion and Greil Marcus, and I became more convinced that I wanted to investigate and deconstruct culture via essays and criticism. But I also found that I liked to write fiction, and was good at it. I was lucky enough to win some prizes for my work, and I wondered whether I should go, as one did at the time, get an M.F.A. to write short stories. Like another hero of mine: Lorrie Moore.
I knew that my life had not yet been lived, however, so an MFA in fiction was premature. What would I write about? I knew nothing of actual life. Neither was I a genius. I was sympathetic to the Modernists, and I felt that if one could not summon visionary, inimitable poetry to achieve your fictional ends, you might as well not put pen to paper. And think I knew, although I would not have articulated it to myself that way back then--that whatever had made Lorrie Moore feel that she would die if she didn't write fiction, I didn't have it. So instead I went and earned an M.A. in non-fiction writing, thinking, again, that, like Joan Didion, I would observe from the margins, and then write devastating sentences about the moment in which I lived. This was squarely in the mid-90s, so there was a lot to think about, and write about, if you were a young woman who'd grown up on rock music, watching your peers taking up guitars to slay the angel in the house that was the groupie.
Then I moved to New York, where I set about Living. In being a young woman who was a little more inhibited than most, but was still trying to Live despite that handicap, comedy and tragedy had ensued. And, while I was trying to Live, memoir had exploded as a genre. As the literary landscape was thus shifting, I found something I was burning to write: a first-person, non-fiction account of reconciling what Cynthia Ozick called world-hunger with an evangelical upbringing that warned me against the world. So I decided to write just that, because it seemed a little intellectually dishonest--to me--to cloak this narrative in fiction. The facts were what compelled me. Although I was uncomfortable with the notion that I had to call what I was writing a memoir, since I was not Eleanor Roosevelt. So I joked that the resulting book, Not That Kind of Girl, was a non-fiction coming-of-age novel, or a long-playing personal essay.
After I turned that book in to my publishers, and I lived a little more, benefitting from the confidence that simply surviving one's twenties and early thirties can bring, I found myself itching to imagine--to make up-- a narrative. I don't know why, exactly. Maybe I wanted a challenge. Maybe I wanted, as many writers did, to write the novel they longed to read but had been unable to find. Maybe I wanted to grapple with some conflicts that seemed better fuel for fiction. So I began. After a false start, the writing of the book took much less time than the memoir. It was shocking. The former Christian in me, unable to explain the relative ease, and the relative fearlessness, wondered if there was a force bigger than myself involved here. Because what else could make me release my usual white-knuckle grip on my sentences? Maybe it was just that I was having a great deal of fun because I just didn't care about what anyone but myself thought about what I was doing.
That novel, Frances and Bernard, has just been published. I don't know what its story will be. But I am
hoping that I can hang on to the feeling of freedom I possessed while imagining it, whether I'm writing or not.