What is truth? What is memoir?

Found object sculpture, made of tree branches, and a burlap sack, www.carolineallen.com

I’ve just picked up James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the ‘memoir’ that caused such a fuss a few years ago, because it wasn’t a memoir but a piece of fiction. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here to read a Vanity Fair article on Frey, Oprah and the book.

First, it’s a fantastic book if you’ve ever dealt with serious addiction. I have, over my family’s long history of alcoholism, spending a few years in an Al-Anon 12 Step Program. The book is a powerful testament to what addiction does to an individual and what it does to the family members.

I never had a problem, none whatsoever, that this author had written a book that was called a memoir but was actually a novel. (Frey sent it to the agent as a novel, and the agent and publisher knew that memoirs sold better and convinced Frey to call it a memoir. He would fully collude in this lie, standing behind facts that weren’t real in interviews, especially with a vengeful Oprah.) At any rate, I never had a problem with any of this.

Why? All memoir is fiction. And I don’t think that’s a problem.

Why? When we write memoir, we explore our passions and hurts and ourselves, and we all tend to embellish and polish. We all manipulate through words how we are perceived by others, and we are deeply subjective about our truths.

Why? Because why spank this guy for writing a memoir/novel on addiction that had a few untruths in it, a book that in its essence is healing to the world, when our entire planet is falling apart because of lies. We’re surrounded by lies on all fronts — politicians lie, journalism is a lie, in Capitalistic societies, ads bombard us with lies about our lives, we destroy the earth by lying, there so much lying in the financial sector it’s bringing the world to its knees — so who cares that someone wrote a passionate hearfelt piece on addiction and made some things up? Who should we really be angry at here?

At any rate, if you are writing memoir know that it is a sort of fiction. Writing about your childhood, you will be an unreliable narrator. There’s no way around that. You’re subjective. You’re putting the story forward in only your view point. You’re using creative license. You can’t remember the color of the curtains, so you make that up. You don’t remember the dialogue word for word and you fill in the blanks with your own words. That’s fiction.

Memory is a foggy unreliable thing. So even something you remember very clearly is still not ‘real’. It’s still partially made up.

But all of this is OK. Just accept that you are subjective. This was one reason I gave up journalism. It was called fact, and it wasn’t fact.

I realized that every article I wrote was based on a Western Capitalist perspective. I’d do an article on a farm that was going bankrupt, and I’d think: How would an early Native American have covered such a story? An Eastern European? Certainly very differently from the way my editor demanded I cover it. So, how is my factual journalism article anywhere near the truth?

What is truth? I decided that purely subjective self expression through art — novel writing and visual art — owning fully my subjectivity as a white woman born in a Western culture, was the only truth I had a right to convey to the world.

Even in the art world, I’m grappling with what truth is. I seek teachers and find a plethora of those who believe in classical painting styles, where one tries to capture a model or a still life. This is the way it’s done, I’m told. But who said so? Somebody from centuries ago, a white male? One could say just ignore these teachers, find others, but they are a force to be reckoned with, as is any other mainstream paradigm. They do not tend to support those who buck that system.

Frey has long said he has a deep artistic need to f*&#ck with the rules, to play with our notions of truth. I get that. I see that. I agree with that. According to the Vanity Fair article, a few months prior to publication, Frey wrote, “I think of this book more a work of art or literature than I do a work of memoir or autobiography.”

And that is what every memoir is, a work of art, a piece of literature. Subjective. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I’m a writing coach: www.artofstorytellingonline.com


2 thoughts on “What is truth? What is memoir?

  1. Thanks Caroline for this perspective. The idea that memory is not fact is good to remember. I had wondered about Mr Frey’s book, his editors, and the furor that ensued with Opray.


  2. I really agree with what you’re saying here. While I didn’t follow this episode very closely I remember thinking why didn’t he just call it a novel and be done with it. Another case of marketing gone amuck.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s