Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:

To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.

As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?

Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.

Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.

For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?

Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?

And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.

Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:

What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.

Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”

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