These controversies raise a flurry of questions, including many about where memoir writers should draw the line between creative license to convey the essence or personal truth of their memories. They call into question the very nature of memory itself.
With these questions in mind, my mind went on full alert when I belatedly thumbed through the October 2008 issue of Writer's Digest and found Jordan Rosenfeld's interview with Isabel Allende, "A Woman of Letters." One question and answer read:
"You've said that in writing memoirs, you work with the truth and then end up lying. Can you explain what you mean?Perhaps the difference between what Allende is talking about and the incidents that have rocked the memoir world of late is a matter of both degree and intent to deceive. James Frye admitted he embellished the truth to add spice to the story. He was purposeful and deliberate about it. Herman Rosenblat admitted that he told his story to "bring happiness to people," and that there was nothing true about it at all. In each of the scandals, the authors admitted awareness of distortions and intentional deceit.
"A memoir is my version of events. My perspective. I choose what to tell and what to omit. I choose the adjectives to describe a situation, and in that sense, I'm creating a form of fiction. I realized this when I showed the manuscript to the people in my life before it was published. Everyone had a different version of the stories because their feelings were different. If you and I witness the same accident in the street you'll tell it one way, I'll tell it in another and maybe one of us won't remember it in a week.
"There's basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I'm using a bunch of lies that I've made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I'm using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized."
It's one thing to agree with Allende that all memory is somewhat fictional, and that my memory of a room being painted rosy pink is just as valid as my sister's memory of the same room being yellow. It would be quite another thing to say that I rode the super killer coaster at Cedar Point when all I really did was hold the cameras while others did the riding, but the latter doesn't make a compelling story, and who will know the difference if I pass the purposely embellished version off as real and true? I'll stick with my rosy room, but I won't claim to ride the vomit comet unless I can rely on first hand experience to describe the resulting ... never mind. You get the idea.
I will continue to develop my descriptive skills so I can give the most poignant picture possible of sincerely held memories. I’ll stick as close to the truth of my perceptions as I can, but a little creative license is okay in the sense of describing things as I think they must have been. And as a reader, I'll keep in mind that all truth is fiction and all fiction is truth so I can read with compassion and generosity, listening for the inner Truth with less concern about the literal.
Write now: grab pen and paper do some Writing Practice about your personal Truth boundaries and your feelings about deception as practiced by other writers.