What Makes It A Memoir
I have been reading a memoir that has been doing well here in Maine (it’s by an excellent Maine writer)–I can’t vouch for its reach in the rest of the country. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt so I can only presume it is receiving support elsewhere.
It’s an interesting book, very well-written in terms of style and organization, but my nagging doubt is that it is autobiographical fiction and not memoir. I will choose to leave the book nameless as my intent is not to be negative about it but only to use it to elucidate a point about memoir writing which I think is important to keep in mind as we write.
I have frequently spoken about using fiction techniques to make a memoir more interesting. Dialog, for instance, can be marvelous. The trick, as I have offered frequently, is to use only a few words in direct dialog (“I won’t,” she said) and then put the rest in indirect dialog (She said that was because blah, blah, blah…”)
Frank McCourt in his Angela’s Ashes wrote voluminous dialog remembered word for word from when they were uttered in the hearing of a six-year-old fifty years earlier. Is there anyone who believed that the dialog was authentic, that Frank McCourt could actually remember it? Well, not me. The dialogue was clearly fiction. (Can you remember hundreds of words of dialog from when you were six? I can’t!) Subsequently, I had to ask myself what else was made up in this book.
If a primary role of a memoir is to mentor the reader (and I believe it is), then the authority of the writer to declare “this is my experience and this is how it came out” must be beyond doubt. Otherwise we don’t know if the experience is a mentoring one since we don’t believe the author had lived the experience. (The best mentoring may be “do what I do not what I say.”)
Clearly, Frank Mc Court was making parts of his story up—the dialog, for sure, but how much else did he make up for the sake of his narrative’s drama? How valuable are his insights about a life well lived if we are doubtful that he has actually experienced the life he purports to have lived and has generated anecdotes to make an interesting story? (Another James Frey here with his version of A Million Little Pieces?)
Now don’t get me wrong: a book like Angela’s Ashes can be entertaining and even full of encouragement and inspiration but can it ever really serve as a guide, a path?
Now to get back to the memoir I am currently reading. Here’s a passage from in which the author’s sister is about to learn of the death of her father. My summaries are in italics and within brackets. Here goes:
“Anne gets the news at the high school [where she is a first year teacher]…Hello to her carrel-mates in the English/History office. Coffee in the black-and-orange … mug. A commotion of students in the lobby down the hall, a faraway sound like a muffled applause. A copy of the Lewiston Daily Sun lies on a table littered with stained spoons and spent sugar packets. She glances at the headlines. [a series of headlines taken from the national media]…She shakes a stubborn fountain pen, going over notes for her first period-class, adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.”
OK. This is clearly a mix of verifiable information and guess work. That the black and orange school colors appear on a cup is no great stretch of the imagination. The colors can easily be verified. That Anne actually had coffee that morning is probable but not certain. Possibly made up to enhance the you-are-there-quality. I can live with that easily, That there are “stained spoons and spent sugar packets” on the office table is probable but again is a fiction to create immediacy. Would Anne have remembered this? “She glances at the headlines.” Would even Anne remember this recalling the day of her father’s death? Clearly, this is internet research. Then “She shakes a stubborn fountain pen.” Yes, a vivid image, but memoir? Then “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” Why this sort of detail to compromise the authority of the memoir?
Are You Compromising The Authority of the Memoir?
What else is being fabricated to enhance the story line, the drama, but proves to be injurious to the writer’s authority to present her experience to us as the truth?
I am going to continue reading the book but I’m afraid that it has become a novel–well, a subgenre of the novel really—it feels like an autobiographical fiction. I know there is much here that is the truth but I’m not so sure where it is to be found. The paragraph above is easy to pick apart but what about the other parts? So…
I’m going to continue to enjoy the book knowing that the feel of the book is true but uncertain about the particulars, the how-we-really-survived-our-father’s-death part. How much of the specific fail to correspond to the actual we cannot know. Mourning after all is often a matter of getting through the specifics: “I can do this morning–this next hour.”
What are your thoughts? Are you writing a memoir or an autobiographical fiction? Do you feel it makes a difference? Not what you call your writing BUT what you do with it. Are you reading a memoir that feels like autobiographical fiction. Tell us about it.
We have helped many people whose lives demanded to be recorded but who themselves were not writers to create interesting and well-written memoirs.
We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.
Over time, your story develops into a memoir—one that you have shaped at every stage of the writing process.
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