Truth Or Lie Fiction Vs. Memoir How Memoir Writers Can Approach Truth And Healing

The recent flap about James Frey’s a​ Million Little Pieces has hit the media with a​ big bang, bringing the age-old debate about what is​ acceptable when writing memoir--a “real” story. Every time a​ memoir is​ released that gains media attention this debate is​ raised. Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club, Jennifer Lauck, Blackbird, and Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, all defended their memoirs in​ various medias, and all said that some recreations of​ actual reality had to​ occur in​ order to​ write the story and make it​ interesting.

As a​ memoir teacher, I find that people are very worried about the ethical issues involved in​ memoir writing. For example, the writers ask such questions as, “what if​ I don’t remember the exact conversation when my mother died,” or​ “I don’t know what clothes I was wearing the day my father went away forever.” I am always moved by these innocent, caring questions, because the writer is​ trying very hard to​ be truthful and accurate, and not leave any room to​ be accused of​ dishonesty.

In my memoir Don't Call Me Mother I researched the time the train arrived in​ Perry, Oklahoma to​ make sure the scene I was painting and the conflict with my grandmother about how long she'd kept my father waiting at​ the train station--three hours! was accurate. My memory told me it​ was a​ long time, but finding the time of​ scheduled arrival made me feel great--memory was not all I was drawing upon to​ create a​ story that would be taken seriously as​ "real." in​ fact, when I began writing the stories that eventually turned into my memoir, I was calling it​ "fiction," but the writing group challenged me about how unrealistic it​ was that a​ mother would act the way my mother acted, and that my grandmother was portrayed as​ "too over the top," thus unbelievable. My answer was, "but it​ was all true." Their response: "It doesn't matter what is​ true in​ fiction, but it​ does for memoir."

I realized that the power of​ the story I was going to​ tell was that it​ was true, and I did my best to​ recreate scenes that delivered the truth. Naturally, childhood memory is​ subjective, any memory is​ subjective, but over the years, as​ I talked with people who knew parts of​ the story and visited locations where the story took place, I discovered that indeed I had remembered very well, and I had not made things up in​ my mind. However, I am sure that if​ my grandmother and mother were alive to​ challenge what I wrote, they would have another point of​ view.

In order to​ reach out to​ the reading public and go beyond private journaling, a​ memoir writer must create a​ story that has a​ shape, drama, and story arc. This may mean constructing a​ scene that conflates time, or​ adds costumes to​ our characters that they may or​ may not have worn, but our job is​ to​ be as​ accurate and as​ honest as​ we can be. if​ we change the plot of​ our lives because another plot would be more interesting to​ the publisher, we are in​ the realm of​ fiction. if​ we say we had relationships we didn't have because it​ would make a​ better story, we need to​ call it​ fiction.

A memoir writer needs to​ write a​ first draft that sifts through the happenings, feelings, and challenges and get them down on the page--a draft that is​ healing and purging--and important work.

Publishing is​ another stage. The writer must ask many questions of​ the work--how much to​ include, what is​ the shape of​ the book, and how to​ write it​ so others can identify and understand.

What to​ say about James Frey? None of​ us can know for sure what went on for him as​ he constructed his book, and what he remembered. On January 15, Mary Karr wrote a​ piece in​ the New York Times about memoir writing and she had this to​ say,

"Call me outdated, but I want to​ stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at​ least a​ century. When Mary McCarthy wrote 'Memoirs of​ a​ Catholic Girlhood' in​ 1957, she felt obliged to​ clarify how she recreated dialogue. in​ her preface, she wrote: 'This record lays a​ claim to​ being historical - that is, much of​ it​ can be checked. if​ there is​ more fiction in​ it​ than I know, I should like to​ be set right.'"

Mary went on to​ talk about how much she learned, and how healing it​ was when she didn't make passages in​ her book more "interesting" or​ shape them into a​ slightly different story. "If I'd hung on to​ my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to​ overcome - a​ portrait of​ myself as​ scrappy survivor of​ unearned cruelties - I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is​ what I mean when I say God is​ in​ the truth."

What a​ great idea—as we write memoir we are reaching for something beyond our conscious selves. in​ the river of​ creativity and the search for truth, there are forces beyond us moving us along to​ a​ place we didn't even know about, a​ place of​ healing and resolution. We can hope that James Frey also has found, or​ is​ finding, a​ resolution for his suffering, and that all memoir writers do the same, by wrestling with what truth is, and writing it​ out with a​ full voice.

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