Class: Truth and Artifice in Memoir Major: Writing ’13
When John D’Agata essays, he has no compunction about changing a date to make a sentence sound better or combining characters to heighten drama. Such creative license is seemingly taboo in America’s mainstream literary culture, as Oprah’s public shaming of James Frey evidences. Yet, this is an author who teaches Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, one of the most prestigious schools of writing in the world, where he received MFAs in both Poetry and Nonfiction. In The Lost Origins of the Essay, D’Agata asks, “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”1
He raises a point. The problem, though, is that truth and honesty are fundamental principles in American culture. Our first amendment protects freedom of speech, press and assembly, meaning truth is the first thing the founding fathers thought to protect when writing the Bill of Rights. Even one of the most mythic and recognizable figures from popular culture, Superman, fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
Readers expect strictly facts from nonfiction as they hold Truth close to their hearts. After all, the blanket term, nonfiction, refers to everything that is not-fiction. This includes genres like journalism, in which the writer is obliged to the reader to detail accounts as factually accurate as possible, or autobiography, which is an account of a person’s life based on documentation or other solid evidence. The perception people have of memoir is that it’s like autobiography, just told in scenes. While this does hold some validity, it is not necessarily the case. Despite being marketed and categorized as nonfiction, it doesn’t quite fit. Memoir isn’t fiction because, like autobiography, it’s based on factual personal experience. It is taken from actual, not imagined, occurrences. This is why memoir is categorized as nonfiction. Because of the strict nonfiction mindset—that everything in a memoir happened the way it’s written—readers invest themselves more so than maybe other genres. When they do this, they also invest themselves in, as Francine Prose points out, the second, implicit story that is grafted onto a memoir: a survival narrative.2 Readers invest themselves emotionally when they think they’re reading true-as-it-happened stories of endurance, hope and triumphs of the human spirit. As Prose points out, it’s the American Dream—insurmountable problems can be overcome and life will go on.3 Naturally, readers who have worked themselves up believing every word to be factual would feel betrayed by the author. This, though, is not necessarily the goal of memoir.
The reality is that memoir works with memory, not history. It is meant to be more artistic than informative, which leads to issues for readers who don’t realize this. People approach the genre from the perspective that since it’s nonfiction, the whole thing is true-to-life-as-it-happened. Memory is not a perfect record though, and could contradict what other, more tangible, evidence says happened. Keeping this in mind, memoirists might even invent details or change circumstances to try and get at the heart of a personal story. These writers carefully choose their words, set their scenes, and painstakingly characterize their subjects, whereas autobiographers compile their research, and arrange it into an accurate, historical account. It’s this type of craftsmanship, this narrative purpose that goes into memoir that makes it artful and distinct from more informative and formal genres in nonfiction. Memoir doesn’t fit in either of these polarized literary fields—fiction nor nonfiction, instead it sits on the blurry line between these two markets. Memoir is the truth of the moment; not the fact of the matter.
As an art form and literary genre, Memoir is meant to shape an idea of the self and mold personal experience into a narrative. To achieve this narrative purpose, memoir uses literary devices of fiction such as invention, time compression or a persona. The memory isn’t perfect, and recalling the level of detail in order to make a remembered scene vivid is impossible unless the writer has a photographic memory. So memoirists invent these details based upon their approximation of their experience. For the sake of clarity, as well as a means of good story telling, the chronology of some events may be compressed or expanded to help make the narrative less confusing or more interesting or emphasize the right point. A memoirist is indelibly the narrator of their work, and so a memoirist crafts this voice, this persona, carefully. Using the persona, though, is like dressing for the occasion; it is not self-reinvention. Otherwise, the narrator would not be the memoirist, and it would not really be a memoir. These liberated literary devices, provide and guide the reader through an experience, taking personal insight and applying it toward a larger idea—some form of truth. This is not the same kind of truth as nonfiction genres like autobiography. Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
Truth in a memoir is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.4
Gornick appeals to the idea that the truth memoir seeks out is not the same as the truth of other nonfiction genres, and addresses the necessity of using conventional literary devices of fiction, i.e. the power of imagination, to reach it. Joel Agee defends this claim, writing, “The liar steals truth; the artist creates it”.5 Autobiography tries to say “this is what happened,” whereas memoir seeks to explain “this is what it meant.” Memoir can do a subject or an experience justice, possibly more than just facts, through an appeal or an evocation of a reader’s sympathy through the use of a less factual, more narrative form.
However, how far is too far? How much are memoirists allowed to invent? There isn’t a clear answer because any answer provided is utterly subjective. The best a reader can do is to look at the effects of inventing details or changing circumstances. Do these adjustments or inventions help guide the reader to a more meaningful understanding of the experience at hand? Do they pull a larger truth from the raw material of life?
In Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, she completely invents a scene in which her mother addresses a homeless man. Her mother’s admonitions are “the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence”.6 The intention behind the scene is to show the extent of her mother’s compassion and its color—a tough love that she is unafraid to disperse. Whether or not the scene fails is subjective. However, we see a side of her mother that we otherwise might not have; one that Gornick thought was necessary. She might even have had an anecdote that actually occurred illustrating the point, but she ultimately decided that invention was the best route to show this detail. The scene helps the reader learn the larger truth that Gornick was trying to explain. In an article titled, “A Memoirist Defends Her Words,” Gornick explains, “At the heart of the embroilment lay a single insight: that I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother. This was my bit of wisdom, the story I wanted badly to trace out.”7 Gornick, as a memoirist, was within her right to invent the scene. She committed no literary crime. Gornick is also purportedly a relatively abrasive person. This comes through in an article on salon.com, when she comes off a little condescending as she calls her readers, “willfully ignorant”.8 Bearing this in mind, she crafted the narrator of Fierce Attachments, to be composed, reflective and articulate so that readers would be more empathetic and the prose would be more articulate.
James Frey supposedly gritted his teeth and held on in rehab. A Million Little Pieces portrays him standing up to the counselors everyone’s afraid of and scaring a Mafioso. This tough guy persona was further characterized by his supposedly extensive criminal record, which as it was famously exposed, was greatly exaggerated.9 Frey’s exaggerations don’t seem to lead the reader towards some higher understanding about his experience. Does it take a badass who can assault an officer or incite a riot to get through rehab without the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous? Was this his intention? Frey might argue he artfully creates for us the persona that he actually experienced rehab as and consider it an authentic part of his self, because it originated in his mind. Perhaps he legitimately does remember being a badass in rehab like his memoir shows. However, the extent to which he hyperbolizes leads one to believe that he created the persona, that he invented the narrator, rather than stylistically crafting it. Memoirists have to be honest with themselves about themselves, before they can be honest with the readers.
Fictive nuances are vital to a successful memoir and must be approached with that in mind. The American literary culture must excuse memoirists from the fact-fetish, and approach the literature with an open mind. Readers must judge memoirs for the quality of craftsmanship put into the writing and not its historical veracity.
After all, memoir is about trying to evoke the same emotions in the reader that the writer felt at the time of experience, like poetry. It took Ezra Pound a year until he was finally able to express a startling moment of clarity and beauty as he stepped off of a Parisian metro in 1911. The final work, “In a Station of the Metro” can be considered a memoir, as the poem shares the genre’s outlined purposes of trying to articulate an experience based on authorial memories. Pound writes, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: /Petals on a wet, black bough”.10 No one questions Pound’s accuracy, because it is poetry. So it should be with memoir. Readers should suspend their disbelief, giving the memoirist some slack and accept that some things in a memoir might not be historically accurate.
Writers can take liberties in memoir for the honest sake of art. That being said, they must remember that they are seeking the truth of the matter. If writers take too many liberties with the story, it will no longer resemble life or memory, and will gently pad its way into the realm of fiction.
1 John D’Agata, The Lost Origins of the Essay (Graywolf Press, 2009).
2 Francine Prose, “Books and Circuses: The Politics of Literary Scapegoating,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2008, 88.
3 Prose, “Books and Circuses,” 88.
4 Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 91.
5 Joel Agee, “A Lie That Tells the Truth,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2008, 53-58.
6 Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005), 72.
7 Vivian Gornick, “A Memoirist Defends Her Words,” SALON, August 12, 2003.
8 Terry G. Sterling, “Confessions of a Memoirist,” SALON, August 1, 2003.
9 “A Million Little Lies,” The Smoking Gun, January 4, 2006.
10 Joey Franklin, “Essaying ‘The Thing’: An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay,” The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2012, 31.