Transforming Coal Into Diamonds: Telling Painful True Stories Through Fiction

Image: a cut diamond rests atop a mound of black rock.

Today’s post is by author, coach and editor Jennifer Browdy (@jbrowdy).


Let’s say that you are writing a memoir, but you find you really can’t share some of the more interesting, memorable stories from your life.

For example, there’s that colorful first boyfriend of yours, the drug dealer. How can you write about that romance without describing how much of your time together was spent cleaning the seeds out of large quantities of marijuana? Or about his unfortunate habit of cheating on you?

It would make such a good story! But since your long-ago boyfriend is now a respected lawyer and small-town politician, it might be better not to smear him with your memories, true as they might be.

So you hold that memory back. But years later, long after you’ve published your memoir, the story of that old boyfriend is still buzzing around in your head like an annoying mosquito, never landing, but never leaving you in peace.

My advice? Go ahead and write the true story down, fair and square. But don’t stop there. Take the true story as your rough draft and keep going, giving yourself permission to tell the truth…in fiction.

You’ll find that a joyful flood of new energy will surge up when you open the sluice gate of fiction. No longer caged by your concerns and hesitations, your story will start to cavort, splashing about in its new, more spacious imaginative environment.

Now you can write with abandon about the drug-dealing boyfriend of the main character, a woman who is not, any longer, you.

So who is she? That’s your first order of business, to figure out who your main character is, now that she is not you—and who is telling the story, since in fiction, unlike memoir, the narrator may be different than the protagonist.

Start sketching, until you feel like you know your new main character and narrator intimately. Then go back to the key scenes from your memories of your youthful romance, and retell them, imagining what might have happened if you had known then what you know now.

Maybe in this version of the story, your main character, coming in and finding her boyfriend in bed with a neighbor, doesn’t stumble out of the house in tears, but instead confronts them, demanding that they leave immediately.

Permit yourself a smile as you write about how your main character dumps her ex-boyfriend’s clothes out on the lawn, taking the still-damp sheets off the bed and adding them to the pile.

What does she do next? Take yourself back into the heat of that moment and imagine what a young woman might do if she were able to stand up for herself and move on with her life with self-esteem, strength and determination.

Imagine it…and then make it so, on the page! As you transmute lived sorrow into imagined victory, you will feel your own spirit growing lighter, released from the weight of your heavy memories.

If you do a good job of thoroughly transforming memoir into fiction, only you and your ex-boyfriend—and maybe that pretty neighbor he seduced—will ever recognize the ghostly outlines of the true story that undergirds your novel.

Why shift from memoir to fiction? When we bottle up our painful memories, we run the risk of letting them fester; we let perpetrators off the hook; and we prevent ourselves from sharing the hard-won wisdom we’ve gained through experience.

In writing purposeful memoir, we ask, “How can my story be of benefit to others?” We ask the same question when we write purposeful fiction, but we give ourselves far more freedom—and the potential for far more healing and joy—in our possible responses.

Shifting purposefully from memoir to fiction, we not only do no harm to the still-living people who inhabit our memories, but we also ignite the process of transforming the coal of true but painful stories into diamonds that can shine a bright light for ourselves, and for others.

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