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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the "Real" Truth?

Blog # 27

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

Note: The title of my previous post, # 26, is The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir,” but I see that I’ve only talked about the role of imagination, mostly as it relates to the “truth.” So, this post will be about the relationship between memory and “truth.” If you haven’t read # 26, it might help to take a look at it prior to reading this one.

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

1
When we housed memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we took the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously. {and yet} We act astonished, even dismayed, when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts…
--Patricia Hampl

At a writer’s conference several years ago, I read a segment from “Trading Off,” a personal essay/memoir about a turbulent relationship between my adolescent self and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.

During the Q and A, people asked the usual questions: “Did it really happen the way you wrote it?” “Did your coach actually do those perverse things? And the one that almost always comes up: “If you were only thirteen, how can you remember exactly what was said in that scene in the coach’s office? (see #26 for a segment of the scene).

All of these raise some still-being-debated matters about the reliability of memory. For instance; in a reputedly “honest,” “truthful” memoir, doesn’t the writer have to stick to the literal facts of the story? What should memoirists do when they can’t remember the details of an important incident, situation, and/or conversation? Can they embellish and/or invent? And if so, to what end?

2
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters
--Vivian Gornick

Seasoned memoirists know that their memories don’t always govern the narratives they write. In my own case, memories mainly serve as catalysts for exploration and discovery--specifically, for finding meaning and shaping a narrative. As a teacher and memoirist then, my advice to aspiring memoirists is to write the whole story first, just the way they remember it. Stretch it out; include all the specifics, names, and situations; write down every memory that comes to mind. In other words, make a mess.

Once they’ve done that, they have, in effect, produced a working draft; often a sprawling, cluttered, even incoherent, narrative. In some instances the draft runs much longer than the writer had initially expected. Which, to most experienced memoirists, is exactly what a first draft is for.

I've found that inexperienced writers--undergraduates and adult MFA’s alike--too often believe that those drafts are finished works. So when I tell them that what they’ve written is raw material for a possible, and still undiscovered narrative, many seem puzzled, and perplexed. Some are even offended. “But it’s all true; that’s the way it really happened,” they’ll argue. And so, it's understandable that they’re surprised and disappointed to learn that there’s still a lot more writing and revising left to do.

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Your memory of your past becomes your past
--Stephen Dunn

Memory, we know, is elusive, tricky, and often inaccurate; in other words, an unreliable resource. For one, there’s the shifting nature of memory itself. A while back my wife and I were watching slides of a European trip we’d taken some thirty-plus years ago. In addition to disputing our different versions of what it felt like to have visited St. Peter’s or the Louvre, or Chartres Cathedral, we were also in disagreement about whom we were with. Were they traveling companions or people that just happened to be part of our tour? Did we visit each place on a single trip? Or, was it two different trips? We don’t remember what our itinerary was; or, even the angle of the sun at the moment we took the slides.

If you’re still skeptical, here are some other things to consider. Language by its very nature rearranges and distorts human experience. And that’s principally true as it concerns memory. For example, after I’d written the memoir about my old coach, that version became more vivid, more real to me than the actual events and memories it was originally based on.

How then, do these concerns bear on how we think about and how we compose our memoirs? Read More 

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