Friday, July 24, 2009

Who's afraid of a genre change?

By Kim

A few years ago I had an informal chat with an agent about my current work in progress, which I had not yet started. She was intrigued by the story of Carl Ahrens, a pivotal yet often neglected painter from the early 20th century. After I admitted I’m Carl’s great-granddaughter, she leaned forward in her chair and asked about my sources of information on him. I replied that I have a stack of newspaper and magazine articles, obituaries from four different countries, exhibition catalogs, family photographs, works of art, correspondence with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and about a dozen drafts of an unpublished memoir written by his wife, Madonna. “Why on earth would you write this as fiction?” she asked. “Narrative nonfiction is so much easier to sell.”

Having won a grant from Iowa State for a narrative nonfiction essay while in graduate school, I thought surely I could do it. Writing the book as nonfiction gave me an excuse to travel to places Carl had lived and I dove into researching the artists, actors, journalists, musicians and politicians he associated with. Knowing the importance of having a platform, I built and maintain a website where I feature his paintings, a short biography, journals of my research travels, and excerpts from my work in progress. Two of my articles on Carl have been published. One was the cover story for the Waterloo County Ontario Historical Society’s annual volume.

I soon began to question the wisdom of my genre choice, however. How do you tell the ‘truth’ when your sources all offer different versions of the ‘facts’? Many of the reporters who wrote articles on Carl were his friends; they pieced together stories he had told them over the years, exaggerating as they saw fit. Or, perhaps, the ‘faction’ came from Carl himself, as he was not above telling a few whoppers (he remained forty years old for about twelve years). Madonna, a newly converted Catholic at the time she wrote the memoir, had incentive to gloss over details the Church would frown on. She states her relationship with Carl was platonic until he left his first wife. Several other sources, including a rather suggestive poem written by Carl himself, make me question whether she just didn’t want to admit to having an affair with a married man at seventeen. Can I prove either version? Nope.

I began writing, ignoring the nagging feeling I violated some ethical code every time I included dialogue, and worked in every fact I could find to ease my guilt. The result was good though mildly strangled prose, and I was stuck at page 125. I knew that if I survived writing the whole book in that manner, I’d edit the thing to death because I’d never be satisfied enough to submit it. As agent Jessica Faust stated in her July 20th blog, ‘good enough is never enough.’ Good enough is all it would ever be as narrative nonfiction. Perfection required a leap of faith.

The first thing I had to face was that my book was not, in fact, a biography. Carl and Madonna were like the tree lovers he often painted; fused at the root, wrapped so tightly around each other that it’s impossible to tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. The book would have no soul if I separated them long enough to chronicle the first forty years of his life. Yet that’s exactly what my proposal said I was going to do.

So I started over.

I was writing ‘faction’ before and I’m still writing ‘faction,’ only now I can transform characters back into the flesh and blood people they once were. I don’t want to simply engage the reader during passages of intense restraint between Carl and Madonna. I want to make them physically ache. I want to give Carl’s first wife a voice and show a marriage shattering rather than demonize her just because the only information I can ‘prove’ is tainted by Carl’s hatred of her. I can now skim over the mundane bits of their lives and focus on the conflict. I stick with the facts when I have them and no longer lose sleep when I don’t.

The time I spent writing a nonfiction proposal and building my platform was far from a waste. I visited the Ojibwa reservation where Carl lived. Like Carl, I’ve now heard the native drums and the hypnotic sound of the Anishinabe language, smelled the sweet grass and sage. I’ve stood where Carl and Madonna met, felt the creative energy that still haunts the Roycroft campus. In just a couple of weeks I’ll once again stand in the studio where he created the paintings that hang on my wall.

Google Carl’s name and mine is linked with his on nearly every site. I’ve found over three hundred pieces of art and my website has caught the attention of collectors, art galleries, painters and curators. I’ve gained public speaking experience and been paid for it, learned the importance of networking, and made very close friends along the way.

The moral of this story is to go with your gut instinct when it comes to your writing. Just as we should not write for a trend, we also should not go for the “easier sell” if we must sacrifice the story to do so. After all, if we can’t believe fully in the product, it likely won’t sell anyway. If it does, we will always be disappointed that we settled for “good enough.”


  1. Great piece Kim. Are you and Sasha going to Big Trees? She seemed to think not but I can't imagine her first trip to Canada without a stop there.

  2. Well said...I knew you had struggled with the decision.

  3. Anonymous24 July, 2009

    Love the story of how you got where you are now! Enjoy the summer up in Ontario,and WNY? Big Trees is still on my list of places to visit. It is near the McMichael Art Museum,isn't it? One of my favorite galleries in the World. Do they have any of Carl's paintings?

  4. To Anonymous and fdownes:

    I'm not going to western New York on this trip. I am going to Midland, up the Bruce, and to Killarney Provincial Park (all in Ontario), which will be a new experience for me. Yes, I will be going to Big Trees (Carl's home from 1923-1935)in Galt. I was eight years old the first time I went there, and my eldest daughter (going with me) just turned eight. Why not keep the tradition going since I am friendly with the owners?

  5. Jeanette Ahrens24 July, 2009

    Thanks for the interesting glimpse into your decision to write a fictional account of the life of Carl Ahrens. Fortunately, you seem to be able to step back from what is obviously a passionate pride and love for your grandparents to see them as real and complex individuals. The easiest route would be to portray a flat, one dimensional portrait of them. Emily's family could portray Carl in a very unfavorable light with Emily as the poor victim of a philandering husband featuring Madonna as the "other" woman while Madonna's family could portray Emily as the monstrous wife who never loved Carl and stifled his creativity. In any case, your book promises to be an interesting and enlightening read based on your attention to personal detail and historical fact as well as your expertise on the works of Carl Ahrens. I know we won't be disappointed.

  6. Anonymous24 July, 2009

    Well written, informative. and entertaining, Kim. As a writer and your first reader from the start of this writing journey, I witnessed how switching from creative non-fiction to historical fiction freed you to write Carl and Madonna's amazing story the way it's meant to be. And we know your muses are nodding their heads in agreement.
    Deborah Downes

  7. Anonymous25 July, 2009

    A fascinating journey as your writing career evolves with the publishing of this book. You can always advertise it as "A fictional story based on fact." From what you have shared of it with me already, I have a strong feeling it is going to hit a "Best Seller List". You're a born writer, Kim, and you're absorption with this couple, your family knowledge of them, and your 'living with them' for so long will give your book a real life of its own. I am expecting great response to it and am wondering who you are going to bring to life after you have finally relinquished this truly unique story?

  8. Kim: I'm John Dardess, and I've never replied to a blog before, so if you'll accept one of low quality from an unqualified responder, I'll respond by saying that your fact-based fiction lies in a dimension where the fiction part rises or falls on your own personal emotional experiences or those of people you know well and thus approaches the "well, yes, it could have been like that." But I'm wondering about the point of it all. Is there, or should there be, some sort of identifiable central theme? --J.D.

  9. Kim, you really have a gift with words. Thank you for sharing about your writing journey relating to Carl & Madonna. I can't wait until the day I get to purchase that book and pour through the pages that make their story come to life for all of us! -Dan


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