Georgia O’Keeffe and memoirs

Last fall I stayed at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe used to live and paint. On a tour of the ranch, we compared the landscapes both with her paintings and with photographs from the exact spots she painted (see Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico, by Lynes, Kempes, and Turner). The paintings beautifully captured the contours and the life of the place, while the photos often seemed flat.

In creating her vivid paintings, O’Keeffe abstracted features, simplified, played up contrasts, and even played some tricks by moving hills slightly—all to serve a sense of place. In some places, O’Keeffe changed things so much that the piece is called an abstract.

I’m finding writing memoir to be similar. Not every detail can be rendered or should be, or the result will be flat. Some of the scenes and conversations need to have their edges sharpened. Just how much art vs. how much literal accuracy? When it is changed beyond a certain point, then the writing becomes fiction—a tricky line that will be drawn differently by individual writers and readers.

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