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.