14 Feb Why This Love Story Was So Hard to Write

In writing the story of how Jill and I bought a wrecked frat house and tried to bring it back to its original Victorian splendor and keep our then-early love alive at the same, I had a hell of a hard time. That book, From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, is out today from Academy Chicago Publishers.

Why was it so hard to write this book? Because life is messy, messy, messy. In any snippet taken from my life or yours, there is never only one story. There are many strands of many stories running through everything we do — the story of your working life, the story of your dreaming life, the story of your love life, the story of your domestic life, and so on. The story of my work on the condemened property that had, for ten years, been Baltimore’s most notorious fraternity was just one of many strands I had to keep straight. As it happened, Jill and I had been dating for only a few months when I bought the house, hoping that Jill would move in with me and that we’d fix up the house in no time and then live happily ever after. Here’s the video trailer that gives you an overview of that situation: From Animal House to Our house video trailer

I am much more comfortable writing fiction than nonfiction. In fiction, if I don’t like the way things are going, I simply change it and try out another possibility. That’s what makes writing fiction fun: anything can happen. In nonfiction, however, only one thing can happen: the story as it unfolded in your life. Nonfiction is inconvenient in ways fiction will never be. You can’t change time or place or chronology. You can’t combine two or three people into one character in order to make the telling more convenient. If you think you can, then you should be writing fiction.

I am surprised and a little disturbed when I hear memoir writers say that they have altered some chronology and combined some people in their nonfiction in order to make the story more manageable. They defend these choices by insisting that they have been “true” to the story and have left untouched all the important details. This rationalization changes the essence of the “non” in “nonfiction,” doesn’t it? Granted, it’s understood that writers of nonfiction reconstruct dialogue to the best of their recollection and describe events as well as they can remember. The memoir is, at bottom, a form of testimony, as if to say, “This is what I heard, saw, and felt as best as I can recount it.” But this is not a license to make things up. Life is messy enough without the writer fudging the details and hiding the fact that, say, “Uncle Tim” is actually a conmbination of Uncle Timothy, Uncle Simon, and Aunt Clara.

Had I written FROM ANIMAL HOUSE TO OUR HOUSE as fiction, I would have

      1) made the roof cave in (only three ceilings were falling in),
      2) made the contractors more bizarre than they were (the beer-drinking roofers, one of whom nearly died, were the worst we had to deal with)
      3) made my family’s first, too-early Christmas visit even more disastrous than it was (I would have made someone fall through the floor, for instance, and added even more extended family to make it more chaotic),
      4) created at least one thoroughly eccentric neighbor, to add some local color
      5) brought back some frat boys (only one returned and I nearly attacked him when he did),
      6) and made the fights between Jill and me even more volatile (we had plenty of arguments but we never separated).

As it happened, just as Jill and I began working on that old, wrecked frat house, my life at work was imploding. In the original draft of From Animal House to Our House, I tried to connect my travails at work with my travails at home. But, really, there was little or no connection to be made. And, honestly, the story of my working life wasn’t that interesting, even though it was complicated and often ugly. The result was that the story I had to tell — about Jill and me in a wrecked frat house — got muddled. That’s why, in the first round of submissions, no publisher would take the book. They didn’t want to deal with that mess.

So I had a choice: change the story or leave some of it out. Since I was writing non-fiction, I chose to do the latter and simply left out the story of my working life. All writers understand the need to be selective: you can’t tell everything. Now, when you read From Animal House to Our House (as I hope you will), you’ll find a fast read that focuses on a newly romanced couple taking on an impossible task: why they survive it? If so, how?

I left out other things too, like the details of my second marriage, some of which were so disturbing they would have distracted the reader. That’s the challenge of writing non-fiction: you have to keep the reader focused. Just because it happened in your life doesn’t mean you are obliged to tell about it. When in doubt, leave it out.

Although I think I’m getting more comfortable writing nonfiction, it continues to bedevil me because nothing is messier than real life. Sorting through that mess to make sense of one or two things will always be a daunting task, it seems. But then I remind myself, Who would want a life that’s so simple, there’s nothing to sort through?

For more before/after pics of the house, click here.