Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

January 26, 2006

Memoirs ... Like the Corners of Your Mind

A great read, yes—but is it really true?

The current controversy over James Frey’s recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has my knickers in a knot. In short, Frey has admitted to embellishing and altering aspects of his tale to serve “the greater purpose of the book.” His admission has outraged readers, pundits, and a certain celebrity patron; but its greater implications are of most concern to writers. As a budding memoirist, I dread the prospect of a just-the-facts orthodoxy creeping into literary non-fiction.

The author of a memoir is at once observer and observed. This fact alone renders objectivity an untenable expectation. Autobiographies are works of creative non-fiction, and as such, purport to be true. However, the “creative” aspect suggests that in order to be effective, memoirs should also be good stories. In other words, writers of creative non-fiction use the techniques of fiction to spin their yarns. These include embellishment, alteration, and where necessary, fabrication. This isn’t cheating: it’s an author’s right to apply the tools of the trade in service of the story.

Epistemological constraints can also propel authors toward embellishment and fabrication. The literal details of a captivating episode may be inaccessible—forgotten or altered by the mists of memory. (Like the corners of your mind.) Even more problematic, certain realities lie beyond the writer’s purview. In my work, I’ve confronted this issue when recounting a loved one’s after-death experience. Is my version correct? I can’t possibly know, but it’s front and centre in my memoir. Perhaps she guided me from the hereafter. Maybe I made it all up. More likely, I hit on some fortuitous combination. It doesn’t matter, as long as the saga is well told, as true as I can make it, and serves the overall narrative.

Memoir is neither journalism nor reportage. At each juncture, a wide array of details, literal or otherwise, can be revealed or withheld. From this smorgasbord an author chooses what to tell, deciding which aspects of a nebulous series of truths should be emphasized, minimized, or ignored. Countless such deliberations throughout the course of a book destroy any pretense to objectivity.

Of course, when a particular experience is riveting exactly as it is and we can know it as it is, we tell it as it is. Why would we not?


Blogger Jamie said...

Very interesting thoughts and very well put! Considering the heat of the controversy, I wonder if you could send this in somewhere so that more people could read it!

4:02 pm  
Blogger vern said...

Thanks for your comment, Jamie! I keep revisiting/revising/rethinking these posts in light of new insights and new information. It's occurred to me that I hold contradictory views on the subject. (Not the first time I've done that, and nothing to be ashamed of, but I wonder if I ought to wait for the dust to settle a bit.)

7:41 pm  

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