Authenticity & imagination in memoir

In an interview with Faye Rapoport DesPres in The Writer’s Chronicle
(October/November 2010), Michael Steinberg, the founder of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and author of the memoir Still Pitching, ­discusses how successful memoirs and memoirists work. Steinberg exhaustively researched baseball, New York, and period histories of the 1950s for his memoir, but also used imagination as a tool to return himself to his lost boyhood. Some excerpts of Steinberg’s comments:

Right now, creative nonfiction is a hotly debated genre. In fact, I believe we’re in the middle of the first serious genre conversation since the advent of the novel in the 18th century. The novel, when new, was thought of as a “popular” genre, which means that many critics and writers looked upon it as a less-than-legitimate literary form. In a similar way, the memoir has become the most controversial literary form of our time. Some of the arguments we’re having today are, in fact, every bit as polarizing as were the contentious quarrels about the novel back then.

The notion that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to craft their narratives is a persistent misconception. Let’s agree on this much. Memoirs are set in real time and in real places, and they include real people and real events. Whatever else we think of the form, none of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those things. It goes without saying that a memoirist’s credibility, like the journalist’s, rests in part on those things that can be verified, even fact checked. To my mind, that’s the “nonfiction” part. . . . Once again, all of this brings us back to structure. The narrator’s personal story evolves out of memory and imagination (the “creative”), and the research and reportage (the “nonfiction”) are the necessary raw materials the writer must organize and craft into a coherent narrative.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not just about making things up—that’s invention. Depending on how you use it, imagination can be an analytical tool. . . . For example, in my memoir Still Pitching I needed to re-imagine my childhood in order to better understand it. This was the only way I could express and articulate what it felt like to be that kid growing up in New York at that particular time in history (the ‘50s). In order to understand your past—in my case, childhood—you have to be able to imagine that past and the person you once were. And that’s pretty much how I wrote the book. I visualized/imagined the story as I went along, and I kept following what I saw. The fact that the story was taken from real events, people, and situations was incidental. In truth, the known events and situations were my biggest obstacles to navigate.

The difference between crafting a memoir as a literary work and writing it just the way you remember it depends on the permission the writer gives him/herself to imagine and rearrange the chronology of events. We do this not to cheat or write a more interesting story, but to help us better understand what it is we’re trying to say. . . . Well then, did I see and hear all this [an encounter with his high school coach] on one particular afternoon? And would it have made a difference if I had? What’s authentic here is the numbing despair and humiliation I felt at that moment. And in order for me to recreate that feeling, I had to imagine what it felt like. And for as long as I write (and tell) the story of that encounter, I’ll continue to claim that this is the way I remember it.

We know that memory is an unreliable narrator. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. In my memoir, I wasn’t trying for a literal rendering of my childhood. I was trying to reflect on what it felt like to be me growing up in New York in the 1950s. To accomplish that, I needed to get inside the mind and heart of the narrator as a young boy. In other words, I had to imagine (as opposed to remember or invent) things like: what did that boy think and how did he feel about all the things that were happening to him?

I’ve found that allowing oneself the permission to use the imagination is the hardest thing to teach would be nonfiction writers. In fact, giving myself that same permission was the toughest challenge I faced in writing my memoir. . . . When we write creative nonfiction, we’re using our lives as raw material or as catalysts to help us, as Annie Dillard says, “fashion a text.” If a memoir is crafted with careful attention to language, detail, and form, it’s striving to become a literary work rather than a direct confession or retelling of one’s own personal story. Whether a piece of creative nonfiction succeeds or fails has a great deal to do with the writer’s skill and ability to shape his or her experience into a satisfying artistic whole.


Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, honesty, memoir, NOTED

5 responses to “Authenticity & imagination in memoir

  1. Daiva Markelis

    I am so getting this book, and I am so making my students take a look at this blog post. Thanks, Richard. This is enlightening as always!

  2. Great post! I shared it on my Facebook page. I particularly enjoyed your insightful comments about imagination, memory and literary work; your words help to conceptualize the genre.

  3. richard moore

    I appreciate the thoughtful consideration that Mr. Steinberg has given to the complex issue of truth versus “fact.” However, I’m not sure he has done much to advance our understanding. He begins by equating Creative Nonfiction with journalism when he asserts that this kind of writing is based on events that can be fact checked. I also think that he sets up a straw man when he asserts “. . . that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to craft their narratives is a persistent misconception.” I’m not sure who labors under this persistent misconception. How could memoirs not be “set in real time and in real places, and . . . include real people and real events?” He then goes on to admit that (like the rest of us) he gives himself permission “to imagine and rearrange the chronology of events. We do this not to cheat or write a more interesting story, but to help us better understand what it is we’re trying to say.” Maybe I am just poor at nuance, but don’t really feel that his abstract distinctions between memory, imagination, and invention do much to advance our understanding. As his words demonstrate, there can be no bright lines which separate these concepts; the boundaries are evanescent at best. In my view, the distinctions between literary nonfiction and fiction are purely artificial, since the creative act (relying on memory and imagination to shape an “artistic whole” in a search for meaning) renders the presence of mere facts as secondary. I am not proposing that it’s okay to just “make stuff up” in order to mislead the reader. But since we do, in effect, select and shape the past, let’s be clear that the ethical thing to do is to simply let the reader in on what is “shaped” and what are the literal facts of the story.

    • Richard,

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I should say that I may have heightened some of these apparent contradictions by excerpting his words and putting his statement implying research higher. And his first quote, in my excerpt, was at the end of his long interview—who knows what order it actually occurred—because I was trying to make his philosophy cohere. Something appeared to be missing regarding research, which is why I emphasized that he did exhaustive research for his memoir, whereas he talked a lot about imagining himself into the past.

      I haven’t read his memoir but assume it’s clear to any sentient reader that he has re-imagined in order to inhabit the boy he was and his world, although maybe he uses tag phrases once in a while like “I imagine” or “As I recall” or “perhaps.” I don’t need those qualifiers so much anymore myself—I either trust the memoirist or I don’t. I agree with his larger point that successful memoirs are acts of the imagination while not being just “made up.”