Friday, June 6, 2008

As I Remember It...

I still have a few things to cover regarding ghostwriting, but today I thought I’d take a break to remind everyone that David Sedaris’s new book, WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES came out this week. Sedaris is one of the most consistently funny writers I’ve ever read. For those of you who haven’t discovered “Jesus Shaves” in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, I urge you to check it out. For some reason, every time I read that story I end up calling up one of my friends to read it out loud to them--only I end up laughing so hard I can never get through it. I’m really looking forward to adding his latest work to my bookshelf.

There’s a piece by Steve Daly on Sedaris in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, in which the topic of fabrication in memoirs is discussed. Sedaris defends his right to exaggeration as a humorist, but Daly writes that the backlash against artistic license in memoirs has perhaps led him to sprinkle in some qualifiers like “in my memory” and “as I remember it”. This saddens me a little. Humor sometimes lies in the conviction with which the story is told, and I worry that this softening of language will ever so slightly dilute his work. I’ll have to read it and to find out.

Ever since James Frey’s public flogging on Oprah, there has been a hypersensitivity surrounding the truthfulness of memoirs. Is all this fact-checking really necessary? What’s at stake here? I understand that some people feel duped when they find out a memoir is partly manufactured, but it’s important to maintain a little perspective. These are not people we know personally. Their exaggerations cannot have a significant impact our lives. Memoirs should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Demanding that memoirs be 100% truthful AND entertaining at the same time is a tall order. Stories require pacing, structure, suspense, and conflict to keep us interested. Life is full of slow resolutions, loose ends, and rambling conversation. In order to shape a part of one’s life into a story, the memoirist must craft the story using time compression, the merging of stories or people for simplicity’s sake, and the editing of verbal exchanges. Plus, there is always the problem of accurate memory. The resulting work, while playing fast and loose with the individual details, usually paints a version of the truth as a whole, according to the writer’s point of view—which is precisely the point of the memoir. As we all know, truth is fluid by nature, depending on each person’s observation of a situation.

For those of you who remain convinced that a memoir should be rigidly factual, try this exercise. Write an entertaining, engaging, artful story about some event that happened to you five years ago, not forgetting to include precise dialogue. I think you’ll find the exercise to be nearly impossible to complete without some embellishment.


James A. Ritchie said...

I think there's a huge difference between a faulty memory and telling a lie. Humoprous exaggeration, when done right, is a good thing, but any good humorist can do so without pretending that it's the truth, and in a way that allows the reader to know he's exaggerating. Writing "in my memory," of as I remember it" isn't necessary.

A memorir is nothing more than a personal history, and history should always be as accurate as the writer can make it. Exaggerate for humor, yes, but do so in the right way, and not by lying.

Yes, making a memoir both accurate and entertaining is a tall order, but those too short to carry it out should avoid writing a memoir.

No, I don't know these people, but I'm buying something that the writer claims is true. If he wants to lie to me, he needs to at least be honest enough to say he's lying, and put "fiction" on the cover.

An awful lot of writers out there manage to write personal essays, nostalgia, and a host of other things in an honest and entertaining manner. There's no excuse for someone writing a memoir not to do the same.

Writing in teh way you ask is not only possible, it's the way 99% of us do it on a daily basis.

And, no, a memoir writer should never have to merge stories or people. That's just lazy writing.

Frankly, if his real, honest, actual life isn't entertaining when written accurately, why in heaven's name would I want to read his memoir, anyway?

Stephanie Doyon said...

Thanks for your response, James. You raise some good points.