Truth, besotted with Lies

September 15, 2011

(Title taken from Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace)
I’ve been reading a lot of memoir lately. Randomly, the last 3 have been about poor mothering, okay 4 if you count the one I’m on now.  I use the word “about” loosely…I know that’s just what I’ve taken from it. What can I say? I’m a mom. On my good days, I revel in it. On my bad days, I worry about the memoir my son’s going to write.
Memoir. What is it even? Who can remember everything from their childhood, particularly three pages of dialogue with their schizophrenic mother? Where did these little chronicling beasts come from? I, along with all surviving mothers, must protest: if you don’t even listen in the first place, you certainly can’t write it down forty years later.
It stands to reason that almost all memoir is–oh, I’ll be generous here–75% lies.  In other words, our modern version of “non-fiction” isn’t factual.  Most are downright mendacious, as Freud put it.  Yet, it’s our most popular genre.  We’re obsessed with ourselves.  How we got here and not there.  Why our mothers couldn’t stand us.  Everyone who’s anyone writes a memoir. You don’t even have to be a good writer, in fact. Someone else will write it for you, or we’ll read despite your terrible butchering of language or smug, fake persona.
In grad school, they now have to teach people how to write publishable memoirs.  I remember a writing workshop in which a student asked {the late} Wayne Brown how he decided whether to make a story fiction or non-fiction.  “If it happened to me,” he responded gravely, “it’s non-fiction.  If it happened to someone else, it’s fiction.”  Duh, I thought, loving the fact that Wayne didn’t have a “let’s try not to hurt anyone’s feelings” attitude in his workshops.
I often misunderstood the “true wisdom” of Wayne’s matter-of-fact-isms I held so dear, but I still think that his tongue in cheek answer was the truth.  But not the whole truth.  I think what he was really saying was that it doesn’t matter what genre you write in; you have to be truthful either way.
This is where verisimilitude comes in, a word I first heard from Wayne, and a practice he continually guided me towards.  The concept is actually hard to grasp (almost as hard as the word is to pronounce).  It’s defined as having the appearance of truth, yet truth is also listed as its synonym.  And I don’t think this is because the dictionary is pointing out that truth isn’t always that apparent.  In fact, my borrowed title pays better homage to the idea of being verisimilar.  In writing, being truthful almost always requires a small amount of fiction.  Thus, we accept that a 7-year-old could’ve remembered exact words spoken to her; rather, we accept that she couldn’t remember exactly, but that what she thinks she remembers is actually what’s important.
A few years ago, I was hired to teach an adult ed. class called “The Art of Memoir.”  The glossy catalog billed it as a writing workshop, but having just come off a gazillion too many writing workshops in grad school, I decided to downplay that aspect and just try to get the students to A) read good memoirs, and B) talk about those memoirs–what worked, what didn’t; who they’d like to emulate, and who they hated.  The concept didn’t work at all.  More often than not, we ended up spending two hours in an un-airconditioned room listening to the students talk about themselves.  My, that is so boring.  But how could I tell them people’s real lives are boring?  That’s what we were there to write about.
One activity I tried was what I called “Changing the Facts to get at the Truth.”  The idea was to write down something that had actually happened to them, and then change three of the actual details into fictional details.  I saw this as a chance to teach young writers a facet of mature writing–that every detail you mention has to mean something.  In memoir, when you have factual details that aren’t relevant to the story itself, you have two choices: either don’t mention them or make them mean something.   Several students had problems accepting this, trying it with one eye on their paper and one eye peering warily up at me.  One in particular took some sort of moral stance and argued with me for the rest of the evening, after which he ended up not coming back.  But I think that was more because he didn’t trust that someone thirty years his younger should be teaching him how to write. To be fair–there may have been some truth in that.
There were many things Wayne tried to teach me that I’m still learning, and how best to tell the truth is certainly one of them.  When I read back over the “non-fiction” submission I sent in with my grad school application–a story in which I framed mine and my first husband’s hasty courtship through our mutual love of classic novels–I’m actually surprised they accepted me. It’s neither truthful, nor factual.  Okay, so I did actually live in a downtown apartment, with a guy.  And we had a lot of books.  But that’s where the facts end.
On the other hand, I’m not surprised they accepted me: It’s a really good story.  The narrator is quirky, yet relatable.  The situation is common enough, without being boring.  The language is engaging, dialog well-written, details perfect.  Too perfect, in fact, to be true.  For example, I wrote in a scene where my then-boyfriend gives me a bookshelf—a side of the road find he’d lovingly refurbished.  In actuality, I found the bookshelf myself, several years after we’d been married, in a dumpster; he hated it, as does my current husband.  (But it was free!)  Another fact: we did not leave post-it notes in the margins of books we were co-reading as a way of communicating.  If that were true, I’d probably still be married to him.
In the workshops, none of my cohorts questioned any of the wild, unrealistic idealizing I’d done.  They either completely believed my marriage was centered around the reading of domestic fiction, or they didn’t care.  In fact, their comments were positive–they wanted to know what happened next.
Often, this “I’d like to know more about BLANK” comment means the person doesn’t have a clue what to say about your story.  But after 2 years of grad school, 3 years of teaching, and a lifetime of analyzing myself, I now understand that their reactions were in response to the fact that my story wasn’t finished.  (I ended the story with him reading from The Awakening aloud, after having proposed to me, and me falling asleep thinking that I was “probably” going to say yes.)  I had avoided telling the real truth, which was that I did marry the guy, that I had wanted to marry him as much as he wanted to marry me.  Despite the fact he didn’t really like to read.
Wayne undoubtedly saw through all of my bullshit, seeing as he steered me directly toward fiction.  But I like writing about my own life, a subject with which there’s no shortage of stories to tell.  I also like that story–the way I wrote it–the one where I fall in love with a fellow bibliophile.
The dilemma I now face is whether to stick with the quirky, self-assured narrator, write the crappy “coming of age” novel loosely based on my own life, and agree to fictionalize the story of my life; Or, to write the truth as best I know it, within the scope of reality as much as I remember it, admitting–accepting–that I don’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t remember everything.  The latter would be much harder, much more poignant, and a hell of a lot more work.  But–ultimately–the end product wouldn’t be any more real than one with the appearance of reality.  Besides, my family can’t disown me if it’s all fiction.  Can they?
If only Wayne were here to once again guide me down the wisest path…

4 Responses to “Truth, besotted with Lies”

  1. disperse says:

    My memory is that I "lovingly refurbished" the bookshelf with a hammer, knocking off the three remaining feet, and it finally sits flat on its own bottom without needing a stack of books to support the odd corner.
    I write fiction rather than non-fiction because my life is rather dull. Just how I like it, to be perfectly honest.

  2. emmy em says:

    Have you read Lit? Interesting memoir for sure.

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