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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?

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?

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.

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?

The reason why most memoirs fail as literature is that the author mistakes his/her experience for the story instead of finding the story in the experience.
--Laurie Stone

Apart from giving would-be memoirists permission to use their imaginations, I’ve found that, regardless of age or experience, one of the hardest things to teach is, how, out of the welter and sheer critical mass of their memories, can writers discover, sort out, and select the singular incidents, situations, people, and/or events that best suit their narratives.

That undertaking, I admit, is still one of the toughest challenges in composing my own narratives. My working drafts, like all drafts, are usually a jumble, a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated incidents, situations, and occurrences. Out of that mishmash of images, ideas and stories, I need to look for those that can help guide me to what I hope might become the heart and shape of my narrative. Having to grapple with that problem, is, I believe, the central struggle that most memoirists must deal with.

It's been said that the hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write about. Because I've talked a bit about this in an earlier post, here’s the short version of how I discovered what Laurie Stone calls “the story in the experience.”

When I re-read the one hundred-plus pages of disconnected free writings, I noticed that images, references to, and mentions of my high school baseball coach kept reappearing every five-ten pages. For the past four decades, I hadn’t thought much about him or even about those early years. Why then, is he all over this draft? And why now in my late fifties?

His unavoidable presence was a signal that an unexpected, unplanned pattern was beginning to form. And for a writer in trouble, that’s a promising sign. So, in that long, meandering draft, I cut away everything that wasn’t about him. As a result, I found other unexpected and surprisingly rich associations and connections to pursue. In piecing the newly formed narrative together, I can’t say that I came up with any definitive answers to my questions. But my decision to focus on the relationship between the coach and the younger me had inadvertently led me to the material that I’d (unconsciously) been searching for all along. That discovery, in turn, presented me with the scaffolding, the framework that would help locate the center and shape of what would eventually evolve into “Trading Off.”

A memoir is a tale taken from life -- that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences -- related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story -- to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader
--Vivian Gornick

For me, and I've said this many times, writing a literary memoir is like composing any other literary work. I don't approach memoir as a story or even a disclosure about my life. The circumstances of one's life, as Gornick and others have suggested, are raw materials for discovery and exploration, and ultimately, for finding the strategies that can help me shape the narrative into, as Gornick says above, an "experience...that...."moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader." In my view, the important narrative Gornick talks about isn't the literal story itself, but the story of the writer's internal struggle to come to terms with something that he/she couldn't understand any other way.

Those who read these posts know that my hope as a writer is to make literature out of the materials and random circumstances of a lived life. Both this goal and intent are a big part of what and how I teach.

I have no trouble buying into to the notion that memory transposes, even reorders and reshapes reality. Forgive me for repeating myself here, but that transformation, I believe, is a critical part of what literary writing is all about. We know our stories. What we don’t know is how to write them and what they mean.

You give me your story, I get mine
--Patricia Hampl

I believe that no matter what I'm writing about—an idea, issue, situation and/or subject--for example, family, baseball, school--or, anything else, for that matter—if what I write has emotional authenticity, my story—that is, the story of my struggle--(hopefully) becomes the reader's story as well.

Which, in closing, brings me back to our discussion about memory's role in all of this.

I think there's a distinction to be made between how writers use memory in works of “personal” nonfiction as opposed to how memory functions in “literary” nonfiction. The first is about accurately recalling and retelling a story; the other is about searching for meaning. Neither is a higher or lower form of writing. They just grow out of different intentions. And as writers and teachers (and readers), we ought to know the difference. When we don’t, we’ll invariably run into major genre disputes, especially when those disagreements are about matters of memory and imagination.

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