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How Much of a Memoir Has to be True?
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Sarah Glazer Wonders if Fiction is Sometimes Truer than Truth

A familiar figure from my childhood popped up on the page while I was reading my mother’s memoir of growing up in New York some years ago. There was our neighborhood baker, Mr. K., instantly recognizable by the description of his shelves, which usually held more books than loaves, and by the portrait of a displaced, bookish Eastern European Jew with a perennially mournful air.

But in my mother’s account Mr. K now appeared during her childhood, decades before I was even born, transplanted to another borough of the city far from my neighborhood of origin.

When I confronted my mother with this discrepancy, she shrugged and said it worked better in the chapter where she had placed it.

How much freedom should an author be allowed to exercise in writing a memoir?

That question raised a lot of passion at my writer’s Salon in London this week. The most contentious issue was whether you should excise passages that offend loved ones, especially if they claim their version of past events is entirely different from yours.

Some writers said it wasn’t worth damaging their relationship with mothers, sisters and aunts; others said a writer’s job is to tell the truth even if that hurts some intimates. A writer’s family should already realize that whatever happens within its domestic confines is fodder for one’s writing, some argued.

What do you do if a sister or brother or aunt insists your narration of events is simply wrong?

It’s long been a psychological observation that just because siblings grow up in the same family doesn’t mean they experience the same environment. So your truth as the memoir writer may be different from the way other witnesses remember it.

How much of a memoir has to be true? How much can be a form of fiction?

In his controversial book Reality Hunger, author David Shields has argued that there is essentially no longer a clear dividing line between memoir and fiction. “Anything processed by memory is fiction,” he has written. “Composition is a fiction-making operation,” he insists.

As a journalist by trade, and a non-fiction writer, I’m much more committed to the idea that journalism should hew as closely to reality as I can make it out.

I tend to agree with columnist Russell Smith’s view that “in the everyday world of pseudo-journalistic non-fiction publishing, where memoirists vie for media attention with ever-more-alarming personal stories, the view that there is no such thing as truth is dangerous.”

When James Frey lied about his book A Million Little Pieces on Oprah, claiming it was a memoir, that lie was not his main crime, according to Shields.  Rather, Frey should have said “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier more filled with life than I could ever be."

But others disagree. “What was offensive about Frey’s claim of truth was that it was not an artistic ploy but a marketing one. He knew that the average person would not, in fact, react to his story with awe and compassion if they thought it was a novel," Russell Smith observes. "His lie was exploitative.”

Shields, argues that many major works of non-fiction contain fictional elements. He cites George Orwell’s devastating essay on the cruelty of his English boarding school experience, ironically titled “Such, such were the joys.” This famous essay, published after Orwell’s death, drew objections from several of his contemporaries that his descriptions of specific events at the school were inaccurate.

Yet the essay is still frequently cited as the quintessential picture of the upbringing that turned English boys into the men they became as they ruled the British Empire.

Revisiting that essay, I can see why. In Orwell’s description of the brutal punishments dealt out to him we can see the critique of totalitarian and capricious power that led to 1984 and Animal Farm.

At the opening of his essay, Orwell has just been beaten a second time by his headmaster after he’s been overheard boasting to other students that the first beating (for bed-wetting) didn’t hurt.

“I was crying… partly from genuine repentance but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.”

Maybe Orwell got some details wrong, but the essence of the experience rings true.

 

* This post was originally published in May 2012.

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Comments
  • Lisa Willinger

    I do think that when we are writing memoir we should try to check our memories against the memories of those who were there too...and we should aim for something that feels real, that confirms to our memory at the same time as we are faithful to the "facts."  However, I think it is interesting that the attitude towards writing about "facts" or journalism varies according to one's culture.  Adam Gopnik (who wrote the book "Paris to the Moon," a memoir about the year he and his family lived in Paris) has a wonderful piece on it.  For anyone interested, here is a link:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001482.html

    When I first read this piece it made me LOL.  Hope you enjoy!

  • Lisa Willinger

    It's an interesting question and one that will never be fully resolved, of course.  I think that memoir inhabits the border between nonfiction and fiction and that all memories are versions of events rather than the events themselves.  I once told a group of friends about observing a park ranger (at Greystone Park in the hills above Sunset Blvd. in West Los Angeles) pet a catfish in the koi pond there whom she told us she had named "Buddy."  She let us pet him ourselves (cautioning us to avoid his stingers) and she told us that once when she came to clean the pond and had been too busy to pet him that he avoided her the next time she visited.  She deduced it was because he had felt snubbed and so was snubbing her back.  I shared that story because I found it fascinating.  Later, at another gathering one of our friends told that story as if it had happened to her.  She said that she had witnessed it herself.  I chimed in, "But that didn't happen to you.  That was my story!"  and when she looked upset my husband shushed me.  Later I realized that she hadn't deliberately appropriated my tale.  She had accidentally appropriated it because our memories are unstable and the story had stayed with her so she assumed she had witnessed it.  We often forget where our narratives begin and others' narratives leave off.

    This is particularly true when one is recovering from a traumatic brain injury.  After coming out of the coma I remembered driving.  Later my husband told me that not only had I not driven in recent months I was not allowed to drive.  Once I realized that he was telling me the truth I wept.  We live in Los Angeles after all.  So if I can't drive who am I?  Do I even exist?


    I was also deeply shaken because I realized that I could no longer trust myself to know what was real and what was not.  I work hard at maintaining that boundary and writing from the imagination requires me to blur those, which can feel unsettling.


  • If you want to make up stories, write fiction and leave memoir alone.  If you want to write memoir, then invest your writing with your personal truth. Just make sure you've done enough real, hard personal investigation to know what your truth is.  Most people don't have the courage to face it, let alone write about it, reflect on it compassionately, and learn how to craft it for the page skillfully.  I find that many would-be memoirists have no real idea what their truth is - and some are not interested in writing for truth, but merely for attention.  I teach a memoir-writing workshop called:  Standing in Your Truth: Finding the Courage to Write the Story You Need to Tell.  The whole subject of truth as it pertains to memoir or fiction is complex, layered, and requires a sophisticated eye.