The Memoir Police
Okay, the challenge is on, though somewhat tongue in cheek. Ben Yagoda, author of The History of
Memoir, has created a way to measure the “truthiness” in published memoirs. He’s interviewed about his “truth” chart in the Christian Science Monitor. You remember—“truthiness” was the term coined back during the
James Frey fray with Oprah about truth and lie in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. You remember, the dressing down on Oprah’s couch.
Many memoirists put the virtual tail between their legs and got quite nervous about writing memoir. “How much do I have to fact check? Sure, I make up some of the dialogue as best as I can remember, but…”
Others wailed, “These are my memories. I can’t prove them!”
Several memoirists have been caught just before publication presenting entirely falsified accounts–Herman Rosenblat who made up the story of a young girl throwing apples over the fence at a concentration camp he was in, and meeting her again in America where they fell in love and got married. He had people crying and Oprah fooled too, and then it was found out to be false. He wanted to tell an inspiring story, he said. The trouble is, he called it a memoir, and it was not true.
Then there was Margaret Jones, whose memoir Love and Consequences told the gripping story of how she’d lived in an LA gang, but it was pulled before publication. It was all made up too. She had fooled everyone–her agent, the publisher, and left bitterness in her wake.
Then publishers got REALLY nervous. “How many liars are going to cost us money this time?” they cynically began to ask. We will tighten the reins and demand proof–fact-checking, background checking, you name it. Memoirists began to get assailed by journalists–whose stock in trade is to tell the absolute truth, making up nothing, about practices such as dialogue and creative scene making. However, their tradition has become somewhat cloudy with the “New Journalism” that uses fictional tools such as…gasp…dialogue and scenes to go inside the story. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood told a “true” story using fictional means, and other New Journalists have followed suit. Of course, going behind the scenes makes for a good story. Novelists know that, and so do memoirists. We all want to know the inside story, we are curious. Voyeurs, perhaps.
A debate is raging in the creative nonfiction world about whether it’s all right to compress time in a memoir, or to conflate characters. Really, there is a fierce debate between for instance Vivian Gornick, who was called on the carpet of “exact truth” a couple of years ago, and the fierce defenders of exactitude.
Mary Karr’s truthiness is measured in Ben Yagoda’s chart higher than say, Sarah Palin, but Rousseau and St. Augustine rank first as the most truthful. I guess it helps to be male and very dead.
So where does that leave us? The only thing we can do as memoirists is our best to write our memories as honestly as we can. Sure, it might help to research the exact name of the street you lived on when you were ten. After all, the memoir police might fine you for getting it wrong. But who cares?
I don’t care where you lived exactly, I care about who you were, what you dreamed about, and how you spent your days and nights. Were you happy or sad, and what made you that way? I don’t care if the color of the dress your mother wore on June 12, 1983 is “right” or not. Maybe you’ll find a photo that says it was green not red, the way you remember it. Uh-oh–you are a liar!
Not. So do your best to write your story. There’s a huge difference between those who set out to falsify their memoir and those who write their story the best they can, using their memory, their love of writing, and their determination to get the story on the page and invite the reader to stand in their shoes.
That is what our goal should be: to tell the best story we can while being honest with ourselves. Therein lies the rub. Writing with self-honesty is the real work!
For fun, go to the Nieman Storyboard, which is a great resource where you can read about the truth and lie debate, by the way, to see Yagoda’s chart of the truthiness of some well known memoirs.
It’s worth mentioning that you get points off for using dialogue in a memoir! So I guess all teachers of memoir are going to have to reverse their engines? I doubt it–a good story is what we are looking for and what we love.
Keep writing, and get your story on the page–memoir police be damned. (You can edit later.)
I’m going to go back to the black and white photos from my childhood and see if I can figure out the color of my mother’s dress.