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

Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

Blog No. 15

This entry is an extension of entry 4, The Role of Persona in Crafting
Personal Narratives, June 13, 2012 (see Archives)

Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

In Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, the two main characters are dueling, unreliable narrators. A deliberate choice of course by the author. Both are
self-centered narcissists who exaggerate their own strengths and exploit one another’s weaknesses; both are misleading and deceitful; both are unconscionable liars. Classic unreliable narrators, and believable ones at that. This is a big reason why the novel worked, for me, at least.

As a lifelong reader of fiction who borrows what he can from the good writers, I have no problem accepting the larger-than-life behavior of Flynn’s twin narrators. Their actions, abhorrent as they might be, demonize them and at the same time, humanize them.

As a writer, I’m a memoirist by trade; and according to certain readers, reviewers, critics, and media flaks, there simply is no place in the genre for unreliable narrators. Right, the James Frey/Oprah flap, false Holocaust memoirs, plagiarized journalism—you know, the usual suspects.

But, those aren’t literary works and that’s not the only way to look at this.

...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand --C.S. Lewis

Many works of creative nonfiction—especially the personal essay and the memoir-- grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse--closer in intent perhaps to the impulse that produces some forms of lyric poetry and prose.

A good number of memoirists are writing not so much to confess or tell their story, but to discover, hopefully, through the writing, what poets and fiction writers often describe as finding out “what we didn’t know we knew.” “To state the case briefly,” Vivian Gornick writes, “memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. What the memoirist owes {readers} is {the attempt}…to persuade {them } that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. “

In most forms of literary journalism and news reporting, there’s an unspoken contract/expectation between writer and reader, a promise that the research and reportage is factual and accurate. And, I’ve found this is also true for personal narratives like family histories, reminiscences, and/or remembrances, some of which include research and interviews.

In both instances (journalism and straight forward personal narratives), we take for granted that the writer is the putative “I.” And though these are consciously constructed texts--and, let’s be honest, somewhat embellished texts-- still, we assume that the narrator’s intent is to render the story--its people, events, situations--as clearly and accurately as possible.

But, that’s not the case in composing literary works, at least not for me anyway. Because, like Gornick and several others, I believe that making a literary work, in this case, a memoir, is an entirely different sort of undertaking.


It’s a myth that writers write what they know, we write what it is that we need to know—Marcie Hershman

For Mike Steinberg, the person, the impulse for writing a memoir grows out of a not-knowing. Often, it takes the form of an internal wrestling match, an inner struggle to come to terms with some persistent, nagging itch, question or feeling--a sense of confusion, maybe, and/or a lingering problem. At the same time, the writer-me is aware that the experiences I’m writing about, are raw materials for shaping, and if you will, transforming the work into what I hope will become a compelling, cohesive narrative—it’s what Annie Dillard means when she talks about “fashioning a text.”

To back up just a bit, here's an interesting paradox. As a reader, my initial concern is to want to know who this “I ,” who this narrator is, and what does he/she want? That’s because a piece of me wants to believe that the narrator who’s guiding me, is reliable, trustworthy, and honest.

And yet, call it a penchant, call it predisposition, but when I’m writing, my narrators invariably are persona’s, three-dimensional characters, characters who, in part are me, and in part, not me. Whomever they are though, they’re a deliberate choice (I hope), for the particular narrative at hand. Which, in real life, as we know, is impossible. {But not so in literature.}

A persona, I should explain, isn’t to be confused with the writer. And the decision to create a narrative persona, whether conscious or unconscious, grows out of an aesthetic concern as much or more as it does a narrative impulse.

Here’s a short illustration from “Trading Off,” a stand-alone memoir I wrote some years back. It’s a scene that describes a troubled encounter between a fifteen-year old boy, a younger embodiment of the adult narrator, and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.

Throughout the memoir, the adult narrator is looking back on his past, trying to understand why, as a kid, he allowed himself to make so many degrading tradeoffs with that coach. The answer, he discovers, is, because, back then, he was so driven and so obsessed with making the baseball team. And the coach, of course, was the gatekeeper he had to contend with.
Now, here he is in his sixties making similar kinds of trade offs with colleagues and superiors that he did with that coach. “And,” as the adult narrator writes, “ I wanted to—no, check that--I needed to understand why.”And to do that, he had to go back into his personal history.

I’ll quickly summarize the scene for you.

As an adult looking back, the narrator as a young boy says, “On my first day of high school, the coach called me out of home room. I was desperately hoping he was going to invite me to spring baseball tryouts. But when I got there he told me point blank that he wanted me to be an assistant football manager a shitty job which boils down to being a glorified water boy and stretcher bearer.”

The young boy goes on to describe the coach’s office in very concrete, descriptive detail. And then he goes on to say, “I don’t recall if the coach called me out of class on the first day of school,” he says,” or if this happened during the first or second week. Who knows, maybe I even went down there on my own. “

Yet, the adult narrator emphatically claims, that he did not invent the scenario. “I unquestionably did meet with him. And even now I still I remember that when he told me I was going to be a water boy, he was standing in the middle of that tiny room wearing only a jock strap, white sweat socks, and a baseball hat. Who could forget that image?”

As the writer/writer, I choose particular scenes and situations largely because they serve the narrative. And this particular instance, I relied pretty heavily on memory and imagination.

Did the boy see and hear all this on one particular afternoon? And would it have made a difference if he had?

Ok then, does that make the narrator deceitful or dishonest?


I won’t tell you the story the way it happened, I’ll tell it to you the way I remember it. --Pam Houston

It's no secret that memory is an unreliable narrator. And we know that imagination transposes memory. But that's part of the territory, part of what makes a literary memoir, well...,"literary.”

And so, when I’m writing, I don’t think of my narrators as reliable or unreliable. I say that because what interests me is the narrator’s internal struggles to come to terms with something urgent, something he couldn't understand or interpret any other way.

What drives this piece is the boy’s pressing need to play baseball for this coach, whatever the costs might be. More importantly though, what links that young boy’s story with another human being’s experience is the humiliation that he, as a kid, willingly put up with in order to get a chance to pitch. That kind of tradeoff, we know, happens all the time in real life; in the context, say, of a family situation, marriage, friendship, love affair, teacher/student confrontation etc. It's a common occurrence; one person wants something badly and has to combat difficult, sometimes, seemingly insurmountable, obstacles.

In truth, the adult narrator is no longer that kid. What’s authentic though, is the numbing humiliation and despair the boy was feeling at that moment. So, in order for the adult to recreate the boy’s disappointment, he has to fully imagine and remember what it felt like to be that kid, in that situation.

The important story once again is the internal struggle, the story, that is, of the narrator’s thought. And so, I’ll leave you with the question; how does one measure the reliability or unreliability of someone’s thinking?

I’ll close with this. “Memories and memoirs can and do play us false,” writes the novelist, Margaret Drabble. “Maybe,” she adds, “ there is no truth. Maybe we all make everything up.”

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