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.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal