A Million Little Pieces

In recent weeks I’ve frequently been asked what I think of the brouhaha over the lies James Frey admitted to telling in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I think the work was fiction.

Do I think all memoirs and lifestories that don’t stick strictly to empirically verifiable truth are fiction? No, I don’t, but the answer isn’t as clear cut as it may seem. The matter of memory, what it is, how it works, and what comprises Truth is complex, and sometimes controversial. In another post I’ll write about an event I participated in that inadvertently showed the complexity of perception, the basis of memory.

Our stories are personal and unique because no two people experience life the same way, even when they sit side-by-side in the same room. Which account will be “right?” Which account will be “true?” You may have already discovered that at family gatherings, when one person recalls a memory of a certain event, another is likely to chime in with, “No, it wasn’t that way. This is what happened!”

Right now I’m reading White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, by John Kotre. The book explores the autobiographical aspects of memory, what it means in our lives, and how memory itself is becoming increasingly complex as it becomes embedded in various external electronic forms. When I finish the book, you’ll surely hear more about this, but what I have read so far is yet another element in my growing understanding that both memory and perception are subjective and fluid.

This understanding is the foundation for asserting that in lifestory writing it’s important to tell your story your way, about your experiences and understanding. You can write anything you want about those experiences and interpretations. You can be literal, or wildly inventive. Even more than truth, your concern should be credibility and trust. If you stray too far from what people who know you find acceptably consistent with the story as they knew it, and you claim it’s “your truth,” you run two risks: You may be accused of lying, or you may be accused of senility or mental aberrations of one sort or another.

Sometimes it’s a tough call between adding a few colorful details to make a scene more vivid and meaningful for readers, and leaving out anything you can’t empirically verify. Sometimes you best convey the sense of a story by combining elements from separate but related stories, or making a stab at remembering how things probably were, how you think you remember them. A certain amount of this creative embellishment is useful — for all practical purposes, reality (conceptually related to truth) is your perception of a situation. As long as you are sincere, and not deliberately trying to mislead your readers, you should follow the lead of your purpose in writing as well as your own conscience on acceptable limits for embellishment.

Frey admits that he lied. He knowingly distorted facts for the deliberate purpose of sensationalizing his story, titillating his readers and inflating sales. It worked. Oprah selected his book for her Club. Sales and ratings soared. And then it all fell apart into a million little pieces.

Frey has lost his credibility, and seriously damaged his writing career. He has gone down in public flames. He could have avoided this dilemma either by sticking closer to empirical truth in the book, or by maintaining the fiction appellation.

You have a similar choice. You can tell it like you wish it had been, claim it as truth, and risk being written off as the family fruitcake or worse. You can write a novel and have a ball disguising identities and telling as many whoppers as you like. Or, you can tell your own story, your own way, sticking to the truth as you know it. You may still be written off as a fruitcake, but at least your conscience will be clear.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal


JoJo said...

James Frey's story most likely would have ended up on the editor's rejects pile if he had not embellished as he did. Not a lot of earth-shattering story within until. . .The addictive behavior - the See Me See Me inner child crossed the lines to pump up the story and the rest is his-tory. Unfortunately it is not a place of which he can be proud and his name is forever associated with fraud - becoming a label just as Kleenex represents tissue or Bernie Ebbers represents corporate deception.

It is said we all play our parts here on Earth School. James Frey played his part to the hilt before crashing very publicly on the jagged edges below.

EB said...

I agree with you that James Frey should have called his book fiction...but essentially I think what he wrote was a true story of his own recovery, and even as fiction it would have helped many people.
I read the book. It was well written and he deserved accolades for that. It's too bad he felt the need to embelish his tale.

Storylady said...

"Just because you have the right to say something doesn't make it the right thing to say."
Fred Friendly - CBS

The above quote reminded me of my now famous (over done, maybe) example about Famous Uncle George. I've been asked the question again, "How much do you tell?"

Proud Family Heritage… How much do you tell?

The Smiths were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower. They had included Senators and Wall Street wizards. They decided to compile a family history, a legacy for their children and granchildren. They hired a fine author. Only one problem arose - how to handle that great-uncle George, who was executed in the electric chair.

The author said he could handle the story tactfully. The book appeared. It said "Great-uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock." (This was originally from APH list)

Yes...it tweaks the funny bone, but when there's skeletons in the closet, you'd better have a sense of humor about some family members or just skim over them lightly. Or...you can just not write about them. Sometimes I put them in my "God Box" until much later : )

Write on,


Thelly, the Storylady, Cardiff by the Sea
For a virtual visit go to http://www.lifestorywriting.net/
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Seeking? http://www.reasons4faith.org/
Spiritual Retreat http://groups.yahoo.com/group/spiritual-retreat/
The Truth Project www.thetruthproject.org
My Blog Spot: http://cardiffstorylady.blogspot.com/

John Kotre said...

Sharon, Everyone,

Saw my name and book "White Gloves" on this post, so I thought I'd jump in.

Amen to telling the story YOUR way. Historical accuracy matters, but ultimately in this autobiographical memory game, accuracy is not the same as truth. Or, as a psycholanalyst once put it, historical truth is different from narrative truth.

I'd want to be scrupulous about historical truth but there is so much more than that. The readers of your story, maybe a couple of generations from now, will want to know YOU more than any facts. So tell YOUR truth--narrative truth.

Thanks to you, Sharon L, for getting this started. I'll be sending writers your way and looking in often.