CULTURE & ARTS
09/28/2015 08:49 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2015

Nothing But The Truth?: On Lying And Memoir-Writing

Why fluid, artistic memoirs are more than okay
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This week, Elizabeth Gilbert released what I assume was a highly anticipated new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Unlike her last book -- a novel about a plant-loving adventurer set in the 19th century -- it’s nonfiction, offering the reader not imaginative scenes to insert herself into, but instead clear directives for living a fulfilling life.

This isn’t the Gilbert who made her fiction debut in Esquire, nor is it the Gilbert who boldly admitted to being a relationship-wrecker in an unsettling yet heart-wrenching essay for New York Times Magazine. It’s not the Gilbert who’s capable of emotional nuance, but the Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, that divisive memoir plumb with mantras, mocked by many for its earnestness and purported clear-headedness.

“I used to be bad, but now I’m good,” Eat, Pray, Love seems to say, implying that the author writes from a fixed place of wisdom, rather than the constantly shifting perspective of a human person with a human memory, tricky and malleable. It’s this false division between then and now, this idea that our lives are progress bars, either stalled or moving, that can lend a memoir an air of icky sentimentality.

In the not-so-distant past, this colored how readers talked about the genre of memoirs; that it’s inherently mushy, self-absorbed and full of canned advice and unsubtle tips. When memoir-writing saw an initial sales spike in the '90s, William Gass related it to our culture’s rampant narcissism. Plus, he wrote, the autobiographer is less reliable than the biographer. “He is likely to treat records with less respect than he should,” Gass wrote. “And he will certainly not investigate himself as if he had committed a crime and ought to be caught and convicted.” Well, maybe he won’t. But, if the arguably feminine rise of the personal essay has taught us anything, it’s that incriminating oneself is cathartic -- and it’s enjoyable for the reader, too.

The negative perception proliferated by writers like Gass might’ve fizzled a little, but there are still decriers. Celebrated fiction writer Claire Vaye Watkins, for example, chooses not to discuss the life of her father, Charles Manson’s right-hand man, via memoir, but through the themes in her stories. In an essay about her father's own personal writings, she declared their dubiousness: “Memoir is the meaning-making genre, and meaning-making is a specious, slippery project, a dance I distrust.” She echoes the sentiment of Don DeLillo, who, according to memoirist Mary Karr said, “a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”

It’s this false division between then and now, this idea that our lives are progress bars, either stalled or moving, that can lend a memoir an air of sentimentality.

That hasn’t stopped the project of relating one’s own life from climbing bestseller lists, and, perhaps more significantly, earning literary awards. Of this year’s National Book Award longlist nominees for nonfiction, three can be straightforwardly categorized as memoir: Hold Still by Sally Mann, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehihi Coates, and Ordinary Light by Tracy Smith. Another is a collection of journalistic travelogues; yet another is about the intellectual lives of octopuses, but the topic is examined through a collage of research and personal anecdotes. In these latter two books, facts that might’ve once been delivered from the vantage point of an authority are explored through the eyes of a writer on a mission to learn. This makes for an enjoyable experience for the reader, who can learn along with an author.

As for the three nominees that most squarely fit into the genre of memoir -- sharing events from one’s past in an attempt to honestly explain a universal experience -- there’s something more artistic about them than the schmaltz the word “memoir” can bring to mind. They’re not quite “It Happened to Me” essays, but they belong to an expanding class of memoirs, ones popularized in the literary community by canonical writers like Frank McCourt and Maya Angelou. In her new book The Art of Memoir, artful memoirist Mary Karr pays homage to both of these writers, and defends their craft, while commenting on the best way to embark on writing a personal story.

Karr, author of the absurd yet true east Texas family saga The Liars’ Club, and a veteran teacher of the form, offers up a theory on why memoirs have garnered both respect and popularity in recent years. “Changes in the novel have helped to jack up memoir’s audience,” she writes. “As fiction grew more fabulist or dystopic or hyperintellectual [...] readers thirsty for reality began imbibing memoir.”

So, tasked with filling the big shoes of realistic fiction writers before them, the best memoirists imbue their stories with the particular kind of honesty novelists strive for: not factual honesty, per se, but emotional honesty. In a novel, the decisions of a narrator must be plausible, must fit with how she has acted in the past, and the events that’ve shaped her. This is why writers like Elena Ferrante will scrap an entire, beautifully wrought manuscript on the basis of dishonesty -- logical or emotional leaps were made for the sake of a pretty phrase.

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr repeatedly emphasizes the same sort of moral compass, where north isn’t the direction of legalistic truths, but truths that are more difficult to discern: Is this really how I felt at that time in my life, or do I only wish I was that self-aware? Did my parents’ divorce really influence my character, or is it some genetic heavy heartedness that I inherited from them at birth? These, Karr says, are the sorts of questions memoirists must confront -- and the task isn’t easy. She cautions potential writers not to view their personal stories as therapy, instead likening the craft to mastering your own psychology so that you, the memoirist, become a sort of therapist, your reader your patient. 

Though she’s decried memoirs that include anything other than straight-up truths in the past, Karr has allowed herself the right to shift on the subject, writing, “I sound like such a pious twit, the village vicar wagging her finger at writers pushing the limits of the form.” She notes, as an example of truthful-ish memoirs, that Pam Houston “claimed her novels were 82 percent true and ascribes that same percentage to her nonfiction.” “Fair enough,” Karr concedes, adding later that listing facts does not a cohesive story make -- some embellishment, emotional and otherwise, is necessary.

There is, after all, a fluidity between who we were to other people, who we thought we were, who we think we were, and who we think we are now.

There is, after all, a fluidity between who we were to other people, who we thought we were, who we think we were, and who we think we are now. And many contemporary memoirists confront this fluidity, either indirectly, or by personifying it, making it the nexus of their stories. One such writer, Maggie Nelson, recently published a memoir about her romantic relationship with artist Harry Dodge, whose transgender identity led Nelson to question the sturdiness not only of our conceptions of gender, but of the words and labels we use more broadly. So, her book The Argonauts features sporadic scenes, her relationship the steady center of a whirring story made up of flashes of memory and remembered quotes from books read long ago. Nelson’s style of writing parallels the act of remembering: some moments are big and unforgettable, others hazy, and editorialized after the fact.

Another writer acknowledging the fluidity of fact and fiction is Lidia Yuknavitch, who recently released a novel in which several of the characters closely resemble her own close relations. She’s written a memoir, too -- The Chronology of Water -- which, conversely, is a true story about her sexuality and experiences as a competitive swimmer, with an arc that moves not forward, but back and forth, sometimes in circles, and, ultimately, outward, in a ripple of self-realization. Yuknavitch -- as well as Nelson -- doesn’t have a life story that’s solid enough to be touted as a commodity or a coffee mug mantra. Their memoirs are like big oceans of emotion and memory and fact, whirling eddies and currents flowing in all directions.

But, Karr asserts, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere. There is, she says, a clear-cut difference between embellishing memories for the sake of emotional honesty, and, well, just making stuff up for the heck of it. “Truth may have become a foggy, fuzzy nether area,” she writes. “But untruth is simple: making up events with the intention to deceive. Even in this day of the photoshopped Facebook pic, that’s not so morally hard to gauge. You know the difference between a vague memory and a clear one, and the vague ones either get left out or labeled dubious.”

What side of that line do memoirists like Wednesday Martin, author of the controversial and potentially embellished Primates of Park Avenue, fall on? Martin, who has her Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies, wrote what she dubs an anthropological memoir about motherhood in Manhattan, much to the interest of fellow New Yorkers and parents alike. But, it was later revealed that certain details didn't make sense with the story's timeline: anachronistic references to Uber, macaron shops that weren't yet built, let alone frequented by WASPs at the time of her writing.

"Where does the lying stop?" critics cried, ignoring the fact that condensing a timeline into a book-sized box is common practice among memoirists. This is because, when we shell out twenty-or-so bucks to hear someone's life story, we want our money's worth: drama, intrigue, emotional honesty. All of these must be provided, we demand, in a piece of writing as verifiable as the locations in an atlas.

When we tell stories -- in writing, out loud to our friends, in the form of jokes with a punchline -- we owe our listeners the good feelings that come with dramatic timing, with building anticipation and providing welcome release. The desired effect is to allow listeners, and readers, to feel how we felt, not to merely be aware of the literal circumstances lending to the feeling. If a memoirist can achieve that -- and if she must take a few liberties in truthfulness to get there -- then she's done something right.

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