Recently, I let a few friends read the first chapter of a memoir I have been struggling with for a number of years. After getting through the first chapter, a little muddy eyed, some expressed a mixture of confusion, which I understand, and offense, which I don't. I soon discovered that they were not so much offended by the episodic narrative--which I described to them as a story written by a hamster on methamphetamine--but rather by the nature of my recollections, the very existence of the memories themselves. As I gulped my beer and listened to the grinding of their partially whispered partially pursed-lipped derision, I realized that at the core of it was a fundamental disagreement about the nature of a memoir. This became clear when I explained that my wretched book was a memoir and not non-fiction. They glowered back and one said, "But after your title you say it is a memoir." True, I thought, but "that doesn't mean," I said, "that the story relates the events exactly as they happened." My friends' interpretation of my work moved me to attempt an explanation.
Since Opera Winfrey's public disgust with the false claims James Frey made in his 2005 memoir A Million Little Pieces, readers have come to believe (perhaps more than before) that a memoir must be an insipidly truthful account of one's experiences. A review of Frey’s book on Amazon.com illustrates this general misunderstanding: "A very basic premise of a memoir . . . is always that one is recalling true events. Things that really happened. That is the point of a memoir. Much has been founded to the contrary here in Frey's book and plausibly so. (the data is extensive and real)" (Laney, Amazon.com). As Laney claims, one convention of a memoir is that its author is attempting to recall events in his life, but the act of recalling is composed of at least two elements that lead to factual inaccuracies. First, the author is assessing events in retrospect, which encourages him to edit his past so that it informs and supports his present. In other words, the retrospective nature of a recollection encourages the author to draw causal relationships between present and past experiences, which give the events the trajectory of a narrative. That is, a conflict in the author’s life initiates a series of actions that lead to some significant self-discovery, one that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference”. The urge to fit the slop of one’s life into such a trajectory simplifies its complexities and makes any memoir suspicious.
In addition, the author will interpret the meaning of the events he recalls, interpretations supported primarily by present realities. In this way, a memoir resembles bad science. For example, if a researcher designed experiments to justify current presumptions about the truth, then no real testing would take place and little would be achieved. On the other hand, if a researcher analyzed the data for patterns and subtle relationships, then drew conclusions based on those careful observations, compelling generalizations could be drawn. For the latter reason, a memoir told as a series of episodes would deemphasize the causal assumptions inherent in a linear narrative, allowing the reader to make connections as he analyzes the events described in the memoir. This narrative structure enacts the type of identity formation Walter Benjamin suggests when he observes that our identities are composed of “chips of messianic time.” Who we are is defined by the memories we select to support the idea we have of ourselves. Once selected, these experiential and emotional moments resemble a constellation rather than a linear narrative arc. In this way, a memoir, if told sincerely, has the foggy, sloppy, mysterious feel of memory rather than the concrete, pleasing feel of a carefully plotted story or factual newspaper article. This tension between reality and fiction is often what makes a memoir so fascinating. Therefore, Laney’s other point, that the inaccuracy of Frey’s account of his life discredits it, rests on a faulty premise.
Yet in Frey’s case the central concern really isn’t the factual inaccuracies, but the argument he makes about how to survive addiction. A reviewer on Amazon.com makes his derision clear enough: "To find out the author LIED for money, makes a mockery of what we went through. There is nothing glamorous about blacking out or throwing up. But to make it more than it is, well, that is down right wrong" (Kevin W. Loomis, Amazon.com). As Loomis’s discontent suggests, the book supports Frey’s idea that addiction can be overcome by a supreme force of will, an extreme example of Emerson’s self-reliance. One problem with memoirs that attempt to construct linear narratives is that these narratives are often put in service of reductive arguments. The formula goes something like this: “I became a great writer/person/athlete/politician because of this or that event in my childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.” However, the formula might more accurately be described as follows: “I’m a great writer, etc., [so some influential people have said] and this is how I feel I became such a great writer [even though I’m not exactly sure how “great” or “writer” is being defined].” The feeling most have, as the readers’ quotes indicate, is that a memoir should be a good faith account of the author’s life, and that that account should support a rather simplistic interpretation of what a life means. I can understand this thinking, but it undermines the potential emotional power of a memoir when it is expected to be a mere repository of fact. One way to illustrate my thinking is to consider the mimetic qualities of Claude Monet’s soleil levant. How might we describe the accuracy of this painting? The pleasure of offering such an explanation is the same pleasure we should get from interpreting a well-written memoir.
Similar in spirit to Monet’s painting, Jim Harrison’s Wolf is a better example of the memoir genre. Harrison’s account of his maturation is sparse on interpretation in terms of explicit explanations of how a past experience lead to some present reality and the implicit causal relationships required by a linear plot. Rather, his account is episodic and moves within the fogginess of a lived life. Of course, feeling the pressure to placate those who equate memoir with simplistic fact, Harrison refers to his book as a “false memoir,” which in a collection of interviews he describes as being 95% true. His cheeky nod to empirical measures indicates how silly assumptions of truthiness can be. As in Monet’s painting, truth lies in the impression made by those scenes that compose the constellation of our lives. The interpretation of their meaning should be left up to the reader, whose understanding of the relationship between experience and truth might be further nuanced for the better of all involved.