Truth is a disputatious concept in memoir. I’ve said that nonfiction shouldn’t involve invented characters or scenes, unless the author cues the reader to such imaginings, because readers understand the implicit promise in the genre to abjure sleight of hand. But “memory has its own story to tell,” Tobias Wolff argues in introducing This Boy’s Life, meaning that the subjective memories of which memoir is made are the truth. And memories are tumbled in our minds into creative reconstructions to make emotional and symbolic truth of life.
What this means is that, at the least, memories have scant respect for chronology. Chronology may be the most “natural” way to narrate a memoir (or essay), yet anyone trying to do it realizes how difficult it is and how artificial in its own way. In order to furnish narrative drama in a memoir, actual timelines must be chipped free of the sense the mind has made of its own experience. And vexing minor issues arise: if the writer remembers something happened at one point, because in his honest recollection that’s when it occurred, is he bound to adjust when he realizes, during his fifth draft, that it happened a year later? Or does he decide the significance of the mind’s creations on a case-by-case basis?
Some of those who argue for memoir as literature, as an artful construct, think this issue is ridiculous: of course you go with the inner truth!
I’m torn about this. Rigorous inquiry into events can help both insight and narrative. Yet a writer might become boring or ineffectual—few can write about childhood, for instance, without accepting childhood’s truth, which makes a Jungian hash of chronology. In memoir, is chronology an exception to the public’s putative desire for literal truth, or is it the canary in the coal mine of Truth? This issue is at the heart of a debate among memoirists about whether memoir must be driven by narrative, must “read like a novel” as most readers and publishers wish, or whether it should be more honestly discursive, intellectual, probing.
It’s bracing to realize, as I sweat such stuff, the contempt some fiction writers have for memoir, or at least for memoir’s claim to truth because it’s real or factual. The clinging to exterior rules appears to signify to these critics a lesser art form, however popular it may be. Of course rules don’t hinder art, quite the contrary, but fiction writers and poets are free to choose their own rules on a case-by-case basis. If a poet’s writing a sonnet, there he goes. Once a novelist chooses her point of view, she’s usually committed herself to play the story a certain way. (My view of forms is of course traditional; the avant-garde—more on this, below—hates the tired tools that only underscore craft’s artificiality.)
I thought of this reading an interview in the current BookForum (Summer 2009) with acclaimed Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who said, “Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. . . . To tell a story, you have to—not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.”
He goes deeper into his view of memoir’s aesthetic failure:
“Literature, to my mind, starts from some sort of personal space—and then it has to go beyond that. Whatever experience you may have had, whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that’s meaningful beyond yourself. And because it’s transformed at some point, it stops being about you. The person in my fiction is not my life, so we can talk about it. If it were my life, what would we have to say about it? Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature. Confessional space is solipsistic: I’m the only one here, you don’t get to enter. You can watch from the outside and as a voyeur, and that appalls me.”
Novelist and memoirist David Shields is similarly testy about anything that would “misposition memoir as failed journalism”—though he admires memoir, as he defines it. Amidst a fun diatribe he made against narrative at Ohio University’s literary festival in 2009 (see “Against Narrative” on this blog, May 12, 2009) was his argument for memoir as a form of “poetry”—that is, as a species of imaginative literature:
“When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don’t say accusingly, ‘But did this really happen the way you say it did?’ We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit. I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal.
“We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir. We persist in seeing the genre as a summing up of life, even though that’s not typically how the genre is used in the great rash of memoirs that have been published in the past twenty years or so. When we house memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we take the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously. We act astonished, even dismayed when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that memoirists reimagine the past, but we’re constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with the transgressions of a recidivist pedophile. I think we need to see the genre in poetic terms. The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and I think once writers and readers make their peace with this fact, there will be less argument over the ethical question about the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’ . . .
“Memory is a dream-machine, a de facto fiction-making operation. . . . We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir). We have no memories from our childhood, only memories that pertain to our childhood.”
He’s got his answer, a desire for unfettered nonfiction. Hemon has his, a disdain for the banality of memoir’s mundane promises. And I’m struggling, awkwardly in the middle with questions and partial answers. In part two, I’ll try to find a middle way between literal and impressionistic approaches to memoir, focusing more tightly on the narrow issue of honesty and chronology in memoir.