“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” – Stephen King, Joyland
In the summer, my brother and I would walk to our small town library. Sometimes, we’d cross paths with a man walking his mountain lion on the sidewalk. One time, the mountain lion bit my arm, and I needed fourteen stitches.
It’s crazy, but it’s actually mostly true. I was afraid for my life when I saw the mountain lion, but it never actually bit my arm. But it’s plausible, and who’s to say I’m wrong? It’s my memory, after all.
I technically could sell this story as a memoir. But when someone starts digging into my history and finds that, although there was a man in my hometown that had a pet mountain lion, there are no hospital records of me getting stitches.
This sort of thing is nothing new to the literary world. The most recent case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces brought this to the public’s attention. Frey’s gritty, gripping tale of addiction was marketed as a memoir, although years earlier, Frey had tried to sell it as contemporary realistic fiction. When no publishers picked it up, he pitched it as a memoir. When Clifford Irving received a three-quarter million advance for The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, he delivered. Only, Hughes proved he had never met Irving, and Irving spent 17 months in jail for his lie. Misha Defonseca wrote a harrowing tale of her childhood during the Holocaust, only to be disproven by a genealogist who found that Defonseca was Catholic. “Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish,” said Defonseca. “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”
These transgressions were surely career-killers, amiright?
Well, not exactly. James Frey became a household name. His book Bright Shiny Morning, released after the scandal, was a bestseller. His lie only seemed to make him more popular.
I can understand how a reader would feel betrayed. I felt a twinge of it. But here’s the thing. I don’t expect most memoirists to tell the truth. I expect embellishment, because our memories are dirty liars. A Million Little Pieces is still one of my favorite books, even after The Smoking Gun revealed factual inaccuracies. Because a good story entertains or reveals some truth. And if it’s a really good story, it does both.
While I don’t care if a memoir’s facts are proven false, many people do. Like, say, publishers. Readers. Higher ups in the publishing world. While A Million Little Pieces sold even more copies after the scandal, you can bet that no one wants to publish another “memoir” by Frey, unless it’s about how he lied.
Remember the story I wrote at the beginning of this post? Here’s an interesting experiment. What is the first thing that you remember about it? I doubt that the first thing you remembered was that part of the story wasn’t true. And that is the power of story. A story doesn’t necessarily tell the truth, it just reveals it.
This is interesting, and I would love your permission to re-publish this post on my memoir-writing blog [The Memoir Writer] which is at http://www.thememoirnetwork.com. I would, of course, provide an attribution and a link to you. I’m certain some of my readers would love your blog.
I do agree with you that a memoir should entertain. Without the entertainment factor, there is no page turning. Of course, what is entertainment varies with the reader. If the reader’s sense of entertainment is a Stephen King novel with all sorts of weird stuff (always feels like writing that is analogous to playing tennis with the net down to me), then that reader will not find Virginia Woolf entertaining as she has her character Mrs. Dalloway in the eponymous novel standing at the top of the stairs wondering if her old lover, Peter, will still find her attractive after all these years. The king reader will say something like, “Woolf needs to do work on her climactic scenes to make them entertaining while the the Woolf aficionado will find King a bit sloppy with his writing—simply too much.
All of this to say that the memoir writer must write entertainingly for his/her audience. There is no real entertainment factor in the abstract—only entertaining for one’s audience. King vs Woolf. There will never be a meeting between their fans about what is interesting. King writes for King readers and Woolf wrote or Woolf readers. Fine and good.
Beyond the intangible (and elusive) entertainment factor, I also believe that a memoir needs to explore a life as it was lived. Absolutely. The reader is not seeking accuracy for anal reasons but to feel confidence that the memoir is in fact a guide to how one can/might live one’s life. That’s why most of us read one sort of memoir and not another. I do not have an autistic child so I am very unlikely to read a memoir by a parent of an autistic child. I do not need that guidance. There is so much out there to read that I am more likely to read something that pertains to my needs. There are many areas where I welcome the guidance of a memoir. And…I will ask that memoir to also entertain me—but not with the net down.
Again, I’d love to reprint your piece so as to stimulate discussion among my readers.
Of course! You have permission to reprint my work on The Memoir Network as long as you attribute the work to me and provide a link. Thank you!
I think you bring up a great point. Entertainment vs. Fact in memoir writing. I don’t think many people read memoir for the facts, or at least aren’t sticklers about the facts. Biographies and autobiographies, however, is more factual-based writing. Memoir seems to be the blending of the two. As long as the event happened, however it happened, will be colored and shaped by the person telling the story.
Thank you for your thoughtful response!
Thanks. I appreciate the collaboration.
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