Story does not exist without telling. “The story is in the telling” represents more than a turn of phrase. The story constitutes the What, the content; the telling is the How, the form. The How is the receptacle for the What. The two have to fit perfectly. Only true form gives story life.
This has been on my mind lately as I began writing Bubbles for a Spirit Level  mere four years after conception. It took finding the right form to get here.
From Nostalgia to Writing
The central discovery I made in writing the blog American Robotnik  was that nostalgia defines every immigrant’s experience. To deal with the challenges of life in the new country, I recalled life in the old one. Memories became my most precious resource. I was who I was because of who I used to be; my present life resulted from all the previous ones.
In my nostalgic recollections, I identified the defining experience of my life: the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I was 13, and everything I knew turned out to be a lie. Four years later, my country, Czechoslovakia, fell apart and I found myself a citizen of independent Slovakia. Momentous historical changes coincided with my becoming a man. As I wrote about being an immigrant, I felt compelled to also write about the past. I set out to write a memoir.
Memoirs were already a popular genre at the time. After overcoming considerable skepticism about the form, for all the typical reasons, I discovered I could enjoy it. I came to agree with David Shields who wrote that “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” Memoir is simply a form that hosts stories. It could do the same for mine.
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Milan Kundera
As the idea evolved, I arrived at a bonus conclusion: writing a story from my time and place would also defy my nation’s propensity for drawing a thick line between the past and the present, for forgetting what was then in order to survive in the now.
The Futility of the False Form
I began work on Bubbles in December 2012. Two months and four chapters later, the publication of Guerrilla Yardwork and preparations for a yearlong round-the-world trip pushed all other projects aside. I planned to continue my research and writing on the trip’s first leg, in Slovakia. Being in the place I want to write about, I reasoned, would be helpful. But once I got there, I could not squeeze a single word out. Processing memories in writing requires not only distance in time but also in space.
I didn’t write a single word of Bubbles the entire trip and for a few months after I returned. The idea had stuck, however. It was Creative Nonfiction magazine’s call for entries to a special issue on “Waiting” that put Bubbles back on my writing agenda. I weaved a couple of intended chapters into a narrative that fit the editors’ description. Though the piece didn’t make it to the mag (an editor wrote me a kind email saying “The Potato Line” made it to a shortlist of 30 out of 650+ contributions), Bubbles came back to life.
I rewrote the first chapter, “Husák’s Children,” as a flash nonfiction piece and submitted it to a number of literary journals; it eventually got published in Star 82 Review last September. As of now, my submission to Creative Nonfiction‘s special issue on “Childhood” (out in Summer 2016), comprising four Bubbles chapters weaved into a standalone narrative fitting the editorial brief, is under consideration.
Submitting chapters to magazines, I thought, was an excellent way to write the book and gain publication credits that would come handy once I started to shop it around. Yet for the life of me I could not get going. I procrastinated. I succumbed to distractions, of other writing projects, of television, of beer. I found excuses, becoming convinced that the exploration of my past is so traumatic my subconscious is making me avoid it. Finally and with great reluctance, I questioned the entire project itself.
Instead of reflecting on and interpreting my past from the vantage point of here and now and writing in my adult voice, as most memoirs do, I had conceptualized Bubbles from the vantage point of there and then, in the voice of the child I was, so that reader would make his own interpretations as the story progresses. Could that choice be the problem? An interpretation is, in and of itself, a story, and it would be easier to compose a narrative that would use episodes from my life as examples to prove larger points. But I found I could not abandon the original concept. Whereas the traditional memoirs benefit from distance, my choice allowed for greater immediacy, for showing instead of telling. I needed a better explanation.
Writing for publication confirmed to me that the fragments of my memories could be composed into coherent short narratives: flash nonfiction or personal essay as a true-story equivalent of a short story. But does a collection of disparate fragments of lived experiences comprise a coherent narrative? I reflected on what everything I wanted to write meant. Like humanity itself, I needed to figure out what my own experience signified, to find the big story that all the little stories added up to.
Through the haze of possibilities, a narrative kept bubbling up that took hold of my imagination. I became nearly obsessed with this idea; this story needed to be told! I decided that I could interpret my experiences to fit this overarching narrative.
Soon, however, I found myself twisting events, embellishing situations, and adding details just to fit the story I wanted to tell. This felt disingenuous. Sure, by necessity of faulty memory, every memoir contains made-up pieces. But I realized that my experiences do not add up to the grand narrative I imagined. I wanted to remain truthful to what actually happened. I couldn’t have it both ways. The tension became unbearable. There was no memoir: my experiences added up to nothing, and the story I yearned to tell wasn’t mine. I reached a dead end.
The only way out, it seemed, was to abandon the project altogether. I confided in Lindsay, my first reader, editor, and adviser. We tackled the problem from all sides for a while until she finally said: “Can it be a novel?”
Toward the True Form
An epiphany is that moment you realize the answer was there all along. Why indeed can’t Bubbles be a novel? The truth is, it can. And it will be.
Memoir turned out to be the wrong form for the story. As I kept trying to stick with the form I chose, the form constrained me. The story I wanted to tell and the form I chose to tell it in became like the proverbial square peg and a round hole. The big story, the imagined narrative, fits into the form of novel perfectly. I can tell the story I want to tell—the story that wants to be told—using episodes from my past and their setting. More than embellish true events, I can make events up; more than add details, I can invent them.
Getting used to freedom takes time. After years of wanting to write a memoir it took a while to wrap my head around the concept of writing a novel. This week I finally got there. Starting from scratch, I am writing Bubbles for a Spirit Level, a novel.
Anything can happen.
- “Bubbles for a spirit level” refers to a joke we used to tell as kids. A boy walks up to the newspaper kiosk and ask the old lady working there: “Aunt, may I have bubbles for a spirit level?” The idea being, such a thing does not exist. In the telling, some kids actually did play the prank. I never did and I didn’t know anyone who had. Bubbles are also a metaphor for the short chapters of “flash” length that comprise the work-in-progress; memory by definition is fragmentary.
- American Robotnik is a blog where, from 2011 to 2013, I processed my experience of immigrating to the US. I tried to revive it after returning from my travels, but have finally decided to move the narrative here and only use the original blog for reposting relevant content for back links.
- “Velvet Revolution” is the nickname for the November 17, 1989, and subsequent events in Czechoslovakia that led to the transition from the Communist Party-led regime and a centrally-planned economy to electoral democracy and a liberal, market economy.