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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)
MJS

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.

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...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.  Read More 

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The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey by Robert Root,Guest Blogger

Bob Root is one of Creative Nonfiction's most prominent, well respected figures. His work has played an important role in the genre's current resurgence and evolution. Among his many books is the seminal anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1997-present). A member of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction's board of founding editors, Bob's contributions were instrumental in helping shape the journal's philosophy and point of view. In addition, he also served as the journal’s interviews and roundtable editor for twelve years. His bio note below will give you a sense of the scope and breadth of his work. Creative Nonfiction is richer and more expansive as a result of Bob Root's writing, teaching, research, and scholarship. We're fortunate to have The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey as our guest post for the next few weeks.
--MJS

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey

I don’t really envy memoirists with a straightforward story to tell—“Here’s how it started; here’s what happened next; here’s how it ended”—but I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure. For both Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even if I didn’t exactly write my portion of it as chronologically as they wrote theirs. It’s good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.

The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn’t entirely one I’d ignored; decades earlier, writing essays for broadcast on my local public radio station in Michigan, I’d written a few vignettes. Most were inspired by boyhood memories triggered by recent adult events: confrontations with renovation in the hundred-year old house my wife and I had bought took me back to the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parent’s house; watching my children play reminded me of my neighborhood and my childhood friends; and so on. The radio scripts were three or four pages long, a few hundred words, written to sound conversational on the airwaves. Some of those vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into their past places propelled me toward mine. One student’s story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?

Initially, having been led to my own family history by researching someone else’s, I began to research a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn’t answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. I thought, why not at least write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was? But then I plunged more deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, when my wife asked how it was coming, I told her I’d almost gotten up to the birth of my grandfather. She said quietly, “You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it.” I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn’t in the book I was writing to explain about me. Read More 

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Part 2: How Do You Know When a Work is Finished

Blog No. 13

Note:
For those who want to read this entry, it would be useful to look first at #12 where I talk as an editor and teacher (in other words, a critical reader) about manuscripts that have been shaped too soon. And, I point out several signs that might indicate that a work is still unfinished--things like: the writer hasn’t yet discovered the central idea of the piece; beginnings and endings that don’t match up with the larger narrative; the voice and/or the persona aren’t in sync with the narrative; the writer’s trying to cover too much ground as opposed to probing more deeply beyond or beneath the narrative’s story line.

It would seem then, the overall problem is that the structure/shape somehow don’t quite mesh yet with the piece’s central intent.

In this entry (a bit longer than the others), I’ll speak as a writer and use examples from my own struggles with these problems, in hopes that readers will find some useful strategies they can adapt to their own work.
MJS
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Author Marcie Hershman writes,
"…writing a memoir is different from keeping a journal…. a memoir asks more from writers than the faithful recording of a daily chronology; it requires shape, pace, aim, and characters whose interactions come to reveal something important… {t}he writer's task is to serve the story: to elect from its many impulses and actions its strongest shape, to craft carefully the tension and rhythm of its prose…"

Years ago, I happened to see the Stanley Kubrick film, "Full Metal Jacket." In an early scene, a cruel D. I., mercilessly hazes and intimidates a frightened, unstable, recruit who retaliates unexpectedly by shooting and killing, first, the D. I. and next, himself. The scene immediately triggered a memory of a disturbing (though not as violent) incident in my adolescence; that is, a surprising (to me) confrontation that occurred between myself at age fourteen and a bigoted VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) summer league baseball coach, a man who was rumored to be an anti-Semite; a man who believed and acted on the notion that Jewish kids, like me, were too soft. Read More 

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