When Truth is Not Enough: From Non-Fiction to Fiction

The decision seemed trivial.  Nick and I were cleaning out my parent’s farmhouse after they died.  Only my mother’s piano was left, a big clumsy thing with pock-marked and tuneless keys.  Phil, the caretaker, couldn’t find anyone to take it.  We quietly stared at it together until Phil finally said, “let’s burn it up.”

It seemed like a crazy idea.  Who burns a piano?  At the same time, it was an eminently practical solution.  We helped Phil wrestle the piano into his truck.  He took it to the field behind the barn, drenched it with gas and tossed a match.

I got a tremendous response when I told this anecdote to friends at dinner parties.  They slapped the table, roared with laughter at the thought of a burning piano and then asked what we did with all the metal pedals and wires.  They wanted the visual details, but I had none.  We were in a hurry to get home and hadn’t bothered to watch the blaze.

My attempts to turn this incident into a memoir piece failed.  This anecdote could hold the interest of family and friends who knew me and my parents and appreciated the burnt piano as a wonderfully creative solution to a vexing problem. They could provide the back story.  The issue was that this decision, driven by convenience, was not enough for my larger target audience of STRANGERS.  I needed to add tension and a stakeholder, but the only stakeholder in this story was the piano who faced imminent immolation.  It was time for FICTION, a new genre for me.

At first I thrilled to the idea that, as narrator, I could invent a better version of myself.  Perhaps I should be embarrassed to mention this, but I feel I’ve set a high bar for a good daughter.  To do better, I’d have to find a community center or an old peoples’ home, offer to rehab the piano, rename the room in honor of my mother and then lead a rousing chorus of Koom-Bay-Ya  That’s not going to happen.  I insist on torching the piano.

I was equally unenthusiastic about creating the worst version of myself, a spiteful daughter who finds catharsis by destroying her mother’s prized possession. Other possibilities included a wild, drug-filled weekend with the burning piano a stand-in for a funeral pyre.

After multiple revisions this layered story still languished.  I was seduced by the piano and could focus on adding more visual details, a spray of sparks against the cobalt sunset (I have changed the sunset color many times) sharing shots of whiskey with the crusty caretaker, adding flecks of chaw to the whiskey, sitting on overturned buckets to watch the fire.   I was stuck in a non-friction rut of truth and convenience.

Then it hit me.  I had to step aside.  Entirely.  Get out of the way and create a whole new “not me” person.  I wrestled with writing a character entirely from my imagination, far from my serene childhood with supportive parents.  The burning piano could still provide the novelty to an otherwise stale story line of a daughter coping with a parent’s death.  Seriously, who burns a piano?

I interviewed several candidates for the narrator role, invited them into my office, stared into their eyes.  I lectured these figments in my sternest “I mean it voice.”

“Could you please hate your mother a little bit, or at least not like her so much.  Give me some workable facts.  Remember this is a short story, so I only have 5,000 words to get in and out.  Maybe you hated it when she made you practice the piano.  Maybe you always felt like a disappointment in her presence.  That could work.  Just don’t tell me that burning the piano was convenient.  I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t provide enough tension.

Let your imagination run.  You can do it; I know you can.  And while you’re at it, gain or lose a bunch of weight, change your hair color.  I’m tired of you looking like me.  Readers love physical details.  Maybe a lisp or a limp?  Never mind, a limp would be too contrived and writing a lisping dialog would annoy readers.  Mark Twain could pull off a dialect, but I’m no Mark Twain.

How about something au courant, like a sleeve tattoo?  Feel free to change your gender as long as you stick to the binary.  None of this fluidity stuff.  By the way, don’t add physical details just for the hell of it, and please don’t have the character look into the mirror as the way to describe herself.  That is my pet peeve.

Stop whining.  I bet you enjoy being the star of this little piece, even if you are one-dimensional.  I can change all that.  Unless you shape up, I’ll write you out, put in an omniscient third person narrator, turn you into a bystander.”

My alters stands nervously in the doorway, her presence fading with successive revisions until she is a wispy sylph.  But I can see it in her eyes, begging me to be gentle and kind, no vindictive rough stuff.  I think I can accommodate her, but I’m still not there yet, sucked in by tinkering with the scene.  That is much easier than the deeper story.  My latest revision includes the strange “music” the piano makes as the wires pop off in the heat.

The narrator slowly takes shape.  The carefully scripted funeral she (i.e. not me) organized in her mother’s suburban church was beautiful, but lifeless.  She’s discovered that her mother is a different person at this weekend getaway.  She drops f-bombs right and left, shovels shit, and knows how to call the renderer to dispose of the bloated corpse of a dead cow. In this framework, the burning piano is a perfect send-off for an unexpected life well-lived.

That’s this week’s version anyway.  As I sift my way through the infinite truths of fiction, I take comfort in glancing over at the patient flame of my burning piano.


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  1. Nancy on March 11, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Ah, yes, the alters! Great demonstration of narrator possibilities through looking into the writer’s inner dialogue. Good piece!

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