Memoir Monday #4 — Are You Just Making This Stuff Up?

Readers often wonder if a memoirist is just making things up.  Sometimes they ask this question out loud at author appearances.  More often they ask it silently while reading a section that seems too fantastic or perfect to be true.  Some readers grow uncomfortable when anything strikes them as beyond what a writer could have remembered, while others, maybe most, simply assume that memoir is like an autobiographical novel.  Those in this second category don’t worry about whether any of what they’re reading is actually true as long as it seems emotionally true or true to their own understanding of life.

Some memoirists view memoir in this second way too.  And they have reason.  If memoir is based mostly on what a person remembers, and study after study has shown that our memories are terribly inaccurate, why not simply give into reality and compose a finely crafted piece of art from the building blocks of your life?  After all, as soon as you begin to shape anything, it no longer conforms to life as it was lived anyway.  Every crafting of scene or sentence, even every word choice, involves leaving something out.  Memoirist and even journalists choose to focus on this rather than that, to emphasize this theme or viewpoint rather than that one.  What difference does it make if everything isn’t technically accurate?

My thinking has gone down this road this week because the book my classes are reading is Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth.  The scenes in Beard’s book often contain details from early in her life that even a video of those moments wouldn’t have recorded in such detail.  And she often pairs her memories with the details of what is happening in a related but different realm.  For example, in one story she describes the movements of corn and a deer that she and her cousin will pass in a car at night, in the moments before the passing happens—movements she couldn’t possibly have witnessed.  In another story she intersperses her own actions during a particular day with those of a coyote, which, again, will only cross her path.

This second example seems a more egregious transgression than the first—even if you believe that memoir is always based on faulty memory—because Beard follows the coyote through its solitary wanderings, goes inside its head, and says at one point that it is “in a good mood”!  What, you might justifiably ask, is going on here?

In truth, it’s easier for me to defend what Beard is doing with the coyote than the seemingly accurate personal details she lays down in such number and fineness elsewhere.  With the coyote, she is clearly imagining his world, no doubt from careful research, and using it to create a metaphoric comparison to her own wanderings and instincts.  If a reader has no taste for any kind of fictionalization in nonfiction, even this might be unforgivable.  But memoir writing is an art, a written art, and metaphor, analogy, comparison and contrast are long-standing elements in effective nonfiction writing.  Beard’s imaginings of the coyote’s activities and world are obviously imaginings; they reflect not the coyote’s actual life but, through elaborate analogy, how she views her younger self while writing the memoir.

In her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “Truth may have become a foggy fuzzy nether area.  But untruth is simple: making up events with the intent to deceive.”  She goes on to say, “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences off the memoirist from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty….A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is.”

We get no feeling in Beard’s work that she is trying to forge “false tales” or pump herself up for her audience.  The impression we get, in fact, is that she is trying to find whatever way she can to convey how she felt in an earlier moment in her life, and how she sees that moment now.  She trusts that her reader is able to discern where she has gone beyond strict memory—using details from a more general memory of habitual action to flesh out a scene, for example, or creating a contrast between a scavenging animal in a natural world and her own natural hunger while separated from nature by cars and bars and other human trappings.

There is much more to say here, and other questions to ask—about the use of made-up dialogue, for example, or the re-creation of scenes one didn’t witness—but I can cover only so much in one posting.


Writing About One’s Self and Others: Embarking on an Experiment

A few years ago, one of the external evaluators who supported my promotion to full professor wrote that I was among those rare writers who look inside as well as out.  Most writers, he said, focus exclusively on personal writing or on writing about the world beyond them.  I didn’t think much about his statement until I decided to add parts of my personal story to Pure Act, my biography of poet Robert Lax.  I did so for three good reasons: My personal connection to Lax gave readers who had never heard of him a reason to care about him; I could use scenes from our times together to bring him more vividly to life; and it seemed false to write from a distance about a man who had greatly influenced my life.

I knew some traditionalists would call this decision a mistake, but artificial boundaries between personal observation and supposedly objective research strike me as silly and generally false.  Even a piece of writing based primarily on research is saturated with the writer’s personal viewpoint.  It is the writer alone who decides what subject to write about, what material to include or exclude, and what tone and approach to use.  The personal is always there, whether we recognize it or not.  Fortunately, as our thinking about narrative nonfiction has evolved, more and more writers are loosening up—showing their work, so to speak, by making their methods of fact collection and even their preferences and biases clear.

With the biography birthed and the initial publicity done, I’ve begun two new projects that have me thinking again about looking inward and outward at the same time.  One is a memoir about a year my wife and I spent on an island off the coast of Washington State.  The other is a book about writing about others.  Am I Janus-faced enough, I wonder, to work on these two books at the same time?  And if I can, what might my efforts reveal about the similarities and differences between these two types of writing?

In some writing circles, primarily in Britain, biographical and autobiographical writing are grouped together under the title Life Writing.  Having written short pieces of memoir as well as biography, this grouping strikes me as overly baggy.  Yet there can be no doubt that writing about yourself is akin in some ways to writing about another.  In writing a memoir, for instance, you must be able to see yourself as a character, and in writing about someone else you must establish an empathetic connection.  In both cases, you need to create a world around your subject and bring that subject to life.

In order to explore these connections further, I’m embarking on an experiment: For the next two months, I plan to post two entries a week on this site, one on memoir and one on writing about others.  Since I’m teaching memoir writing this term, some of the memoir material will come from class preparations and discussions, and some of the material on writing about others will come from classes I’ve taught on that subject.  But my intention is to be more speculative and contemplative than academic or, God forbid, didactic.  I want to think on the page about what I’m discovering and share it with anyone interested.

Generally, the first entry each week will be devoted to memoir and I’ll write it on Monday, so let’s call this the first Memoir Monday.  That having been said, this introductory entry is quite long already, so instead of deep contemplation, I’ll leave you with just a few memoir thoughts.  These are drawn mostly from comments made at the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference I attended over the weekend.

  1. In an AWP panel on memoir, Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, said that a memoirist needs to “let the bottom fall out,” writing “into the deepest truth,” the one you didn’t know until you started writing. “We go into the darkness,” she said, “we go through the darkness, and we come out of the darkness changed.”
  1. Another panel member said that a memoirist is the protagonist in her story but not the hero. This comment deserves more musing, of course, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only that the panel member was calling for a true examination of one’s self—one that goes beyond and below self-glorification, self-centeredness, and even self-doubt. In her new book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes:  “Once the reader identifies a vain or self-serving streak the writer can’t admit to with candor, a level of distrust interferes with that reader’s experience.”
  1. Memory studies have shown that the least-durable type of long-term memory is factual memory and the most-durable type is episodic memory, which is primarily scene-based memory with a personal component, the kind of memory most conducive to memoir writing.
  1. And finally, a quote from poet Marie Louise Kaschnitz especially applicable to memoir writing:

You cannot write

To save your soul. 

Given up, it drifts and does the singing.


And so the experiment begins…