Guest Post by Wayne E. Groner
A common oath for courtroom witnesses is: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” While witnesses may still raise their right hands, the use of a Bible in taking the oath has mostly gone out of favor in deference to a variety of non-Christian religious beliefs. The word God is deleted for Atheists and Muslims.
Rotary International encourages members to use its Four-Way Test in all personal and business matters: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Which brings me to memoirs; to what extent are writers of memoirs required to tell the truth? After all, a memoir is a collection of remembrances, not an exercise in journalism. The best memoirs tell good stories with conflicts, lessons learned, issues resolved or not, and changes that bring growth. Can a memoirist accurately and fairly remember all that stuff, especially the dialogue? And do readers really care?
Storytelling has its extremes. Local and regional liars’ clubs encourage the telling of tall tales for fun. Mary Karr, in The Liars' Club: A Memoir, tells of “a terrific family of liars and drunks” with tidbits and chunks of redeeming truths. Some critics claimed to be unable to tell whether, in some cases, Karr is retelling a fabrication or creating one. James Frey was embarrassed by the national media when it revealed much of his bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, was made up; Oprah Winfrey publicly rebuked him for lying after she initially praised him. A lot of movies are declared to be based on true stories. Based on are the operative words; many of the opening credits should include, “Some of the following is true.” Does memoir qualify as creative nonfiction, that ambiguous and relatively new term for using fiction writing techniques to tell true stories? Lee Gutkind posits creative nonfiction encourages personal viewpoint and conjecture.
Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, writing for the Nieman Storyboard project at Harvard University, declared there are no simple answers for the complex questions surrounding truth in memoirs. That said, they tried to take on the problems of memoir inaccuracies by constructing a scoring system, a system they admit is half-facetious and half-serious. They rate inaccuracies according to their negative reflections on people, living or dead; corroboration of facts; questionable dialogue; clichés and flat writing; and self-deprecation. A passing score is 65 out of 100. They applied their scoring to nine memoirs from the year 397 to 2009. Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast received a 69, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces got 29, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life got 69. Read the full scoring report and download a printable worksheet to evaluate your memoir. It is a subjective process, since we are all biased about our own work, but it could prove insightful.
What does all this mean for today’s writers of memoirs? If you want to be accepted and respected then you must be as accurate and truthful as possible. What does it mean for today’s readers of memoirs, who are the final judges because they approve or reject memoirs based on what they buy? As Yagoda and DeLorenzo said, “. . . an informed reader has to make the call.”
Wayne E. Groner is a personal historian and memoir writing coach who blogs at www.waynegroner.blogspot.com