A Conversation with Leslie Lehr

In the summer Unlocking Your Story workshops we've been discussing the differences between fiction and nonfiction, and what each one offers as a form to share the story that you want to tell. For some writers it's an obvious inclination toward one or the other; for other writers, it's not so clear.

I had the great pleasure of talking in depth with prize-winning author, essayist and screenwriter Leslie Lehr about her point of view on this topic. As someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, she shared openly about her own creative process and approach, which I found extremely thought-provoking. Leslie also teaches novel writing at UCLA Extension Writers' Program and is a story consultant for Truby Writers Studio. You can read the full interview below!

Leslie Lehr is a prize-winning author, essayist and screenwriter. Her new novel, What A Mother Knows, follows Wife Goes On66 Laps, and three nonfiction books, including Welcome to Club Mom. Her essays appear in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and anthologies such as Mommy Wars. Leslie mentors writers through private consulting and Truby's Writers Studio. A graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA from Antioch University, she is a member of PEN, The Authors Guild, WGA, Women In Film, The Women's Leadership Council of L.A., and is a contributor to the Tarcher/Penguin Series "Now Write."


Karin: You write both fiction and nonfiction. How would you describe the difference between the two?

Leslie: With fiction, like my new novel, What A Mother Knows, every single element is designed to express an emotional truth, so you design and funnel everything for that purpose. With memoir, you are limited to reality. You can expand and compress time or include some things and not others, but it's a tricky thing. It's still your point of view, but our memories are not always reliable, nor popular. Fiction offers a structure in which to include the things that are the most important to you. 

So would you say fiction is more structured or formulaic than memoir? 

Not formulaic in a bad way. The best memoirs have a frame, but you're still dealing with weighing personal experience with what you learned from it. In a novel you are forced to make things up around those ideas. You have to tell a story based on a person who has a need and a desire, strong opponents, a battle, a climax and a resolution - and more things that happen in between depending on what the genre is. It all springs from your theme but doesn't explain it. Writing a novel, the reader needs to know where the characters are all the time. You need to be the camera. And if a certain element doesn't work to tell your story, it shouldn't be there. Everything needs to be carefully designed.

In memoir, you can usually take more time with internal narrative. And you have to tell the truth even if it's just your side of the truth. You can't add stuff that happened to help make your point. That said, if you have something to say, you can say it in either form.

My dad is a scientist, and he doesn't read any fiction. We've discussed this often over the years. And I've written both. I've written three fiction books, three nonfiction, screenplays, and I do a lot of personal essays. My dad writes a lot of articles, but he thinks that fiction is make-believe. I have to tell him that nonfiction - even books on science and history - is according to the statistics of that day. History changes. It also tends to be one person's point of view. So if you're trying to tell a story about an emotional event or some reality, fiction is the way I like to do it. There is a real truth you can get to in fiction that you can't always get to in non-fiction.

There are benefits to both forms, but I am having the most fun with full-length fiction. And I do use fiction as a device to explore real life even beyond the entertainment or escape value. Currently, I'm working on the script for What A Mother Knows, which is truly puzzle-making, cutting so much while keeping the meaning intact. I'm also developing a new story, based on emotional and cultural truths that I want to express. I also do manuscript consultations for Truby Writers Studio using story structure techniques that enhance memoirs as well as novels.

If someone is debating between fiction and nonfiction to tell a certain story, is there a way that they can answer that question for themselves?

That's a personal choice. In fiction, stories are better told in particular genres. But when you want to tell a certain truth, either commit to transparency or wrap it in a fictional story.

Years before I wrote What A Mother Knows, I wrote a memoir that a family member objected to so much that I decided to hold off on publishing until it felt safe for everyone. Some writers feel comfortable even when others are not comfortable - I'm just not one. I think life is challenging enough than to ask for trouble, especially when I can deal with the same issues in fiction. And sure enough, a bit of it ended up in What A Mother Knows - the emotional truth of it, anyway.

The advantage of writing fiction is that you can make up things in order to tell a story in a way that can magnify the idea that you want to explore. On the other hand, you're in competition with people making up any story, and so it has to be really good and bigger than life and yet more intimate and precise, because you're trying to tell your story. So it's a decision that you, as the writer, have to make, and be 'all in' whichever you choose.

Last year a woman from the State Library of California read all of my work for an in depth interview at Literary Orange. She pointed out that most of my work begins with a personal essay then expands into a novel. So, without being conscious of it, I've been playing with the best of both worlds.

Is it true that you always know the ending to your stories when you begin?

I always figure you can't hit the bull's eye unless you can see the target. But that's just me. I know a lot of people who don't know the ending. If you know where you're going, then you're going to design a story that makes it all logical. You want the ending to be a surprise, but it has to be a logical surprise. You know how disappointing it can be when the butler did it? All the time we put in to watching or reading something and then there's no pay-off because something came out of the blue. It has to be really synthesized to work in a certain way. I'm not saying that everyone should have an ending and stick to it. The character's journey can inspire a writer to change the ending. For me it just helps to know where I'm going. Writing a novel takes a lot of time and a lot of passion. For me, caring that much about a story typically means caring that it gets to a particular ending.

In memoir, you might not know the ending when you begin, unless you are ten years hence and have built a strong story frame. The writing can be part of the journey to a deeper understanding. It's a process of finding that transcendent meaning; it's eureka. It's having those epiphanies. And it's often cathartic. That's why it's so important to keep a pad of paper by your bed, to write things down, because it's in there. And you may think you have the ending, and then four years later you find the real ending. But it's never really an ending because you're still alive and you've got other things going on, and maybe those experiences contribute to your understanding.


To learn more about Leslie Lehr, visit leslielehr.com

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