by Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, NAMW President
The flurry about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and other memoirs that admittedly were made up hit the media with a big bang, bringing the age-old debate about what is acceptable when writing memoir—a “true” 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 publications. Each of them said that some recreations of actual reality had to occur in order to write their story and make it interesting.
As a memoir coach, I find that people are worried about the ethical issues involved in memoir writing. For example, 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.” I’m 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.
As I write in my book The Power of Memoir, a memoir is a creation of a story from memory using writing tools to create scenes and story that is entertaining and puts the reader in the scene. In order to reach out to the reading public and go beyond private journaling, a memoir writer must create a story that has a story arc and use dramatic structure, bringing the story alive with what we call “fictional tools”, but the story being told remains as accurately her version of what she experienced as she can make it. This may mean constructing a scene that conflates time, or creating costumes for characters to wear that we can’t be sure they wore, but our job is to be accurate and as honest as we can be about the emotional truths and as many facts as we can manage. If we change the plot of our lives because another plot would be more interesting, we are writing fiction. If we say we had relationships we didn’t have because it would make a better story, we that’s 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. Publishing is yet another stage. The writer must ask many questions of the work—how much to include, and how to write it so others can understand the story. It’s important to write a first draft that delves into all the conflictual emotional issues to clear them out of the mind, then write another draft that looks toward publication, if that is the goal.
A few years ago, Mary Karr wrote a piece in the New York Times about memoir writing:
“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.”
As we write memoir, we’re 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 a resolution for his suffering, and that all memoir writers do the same, by wrestling with what their truth is and writing it out with confidence. Allow the first draft to say all the hidden things that need to be said, then turn toward “the reader’s” needs after that.
Thank you for the great blog on “Truth or Lie.” I started writing memoir material three years ago and it’s been a long, exciting process of first-drafting giving way to increasing focus and deeper digging. Your reminders about “reaching for something beyond our conscious selves” are always helpful boosters in this process.
Linda Joy, I really appreciate what you had to say about that first draft “that is healing and purging.” That’s what I tell people I work with as well as I’ve learned it for myself through many years of journal writing that went on to become poetry, personal essays, fiction, and a writing guide. I think of Dorothy Allison’s powerful essay, “Deciding to Live”, included in her book of short stories, Trash (Firebrand Books 1988). I often refer to it at the beginning of a memoir writing course. She writes of those many purging drafts.
Also, although many memoir writers may not realize it at first (such as those new writers who have signed up for a memoir writing course), we are “reaching for something beyond our conscious selves” as you say. Your words resonate with me: “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.”
A fine example of a memoir is Patrick Lane’s There is a Season (published by Trumpeter in the U.S. as What the Stones Remember.) Patrick is a Canadian poet with whom I’ve had the honour of working several times. He writes in his memoir: “When I remember the past it is alive and it is as if it is dreaming me. Without the past I can’t learn to live in the unfolding present . . . While the past can be a burden, it is also a gift out of time. The clear moments of memory must be understood. It is only then they can be let go.”
As for trying to remember the specifics such as what Mum wore at a particular event, never underestimate the power of intuition. Our mind may not remember the white sundress with the black polka dots and matching bolero jacket but some part of us does when we write the words on a page. And I see all those ancestors as guides on our writing journey. One woman from my childhood who I’ve written about in a personal essay as well as a poem, has become a daily guide. Jean couldn’t speak and she certainly encourages me to have a voice in the world. I gained a lot of insight about her life, and my own, as I wrote about her.
And as for that dramatic arc in memoir, perhaps a particular memory can be saved to last to create some impact just as a novel does. Dominique Browning did that in her memoir, Slow Love (Atlas 2010), which I read and reviewed recently for http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org. Browning recalled having cancer some years before the writing of the book and told that story near the end. It created an unexpected climax in this story of a woman finding peace in her home life after the busy whirl of being an editor with House & Garden magazine. Most importantly, I found Browning’s story to be honest. While others may argue about the “truth”, I’d say honesty wins out in the end. Although the words “truth” and “honesty” are often used interchangeably, I think it’s up to a writer to get to that honesty even though her siblings or her readers may not believe her story is true.
As you have Linda Joy, I have found the healing nature of writing and believe it to be my spiritual and wellness practice. I share what I learn with others and am particularly proud of the mentoring program I offer called Writing Home. http://www.maryannmoore.ca