Finally among the flurry of commentaries on the James Frey scandal (and I’ve read most of them), someone writes a common-sensical story about the ethics of memoir writing. It’s not a genre you should enter unless you’re ready to search your conscience. From the Christian Science Monitor:
“Indeed, like novelists, many memoirists write pages of dialogue, even if the actual conversations took place decades earlier. They often create composite characters, collapse time, and fill scenes from long ago with lush detail.
“You’re taking the highlights of your life. It’s a work of art, it’s selective, it’s subject to memory,” says memoirist Lili Wright, author of “Learning to Float” (2000). “A memoir is art, it’s literature. It’s not journalism, it’s not a documentary.”
For many memoirists, balancing reality with the art of writing is difficult.
“Every second of the process, you’re confronting questions about ethics and the boundaries of what’s true and not true,” says Nancy McCabe, author of 2003’s “After the Flashlight Man.”
Some authors consult their journals and diaries. Others, like Ms. Karr, check with people featured in their memoirs and ask them to sign releases stating the books are accurate. This is a good idea, Karr says, not least because “most of the people in my family are armed.”
In the larger picture, Karr says such consultations help keep her honest. “For me, the greatest pressure is to tell the truth to the best of my ability, knowing that it will be corrupt, and I’ll forget things, and I’m self-serving.”
In addition to fact-checking, some memoirists warn readers about the pitfalls of memory . . .
It’s important to be clear and upfront with readers, says Patricia O’Toole, author of the 2005 biography “When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House.” “You have to let the reader know what your game is. If you’re telling the reader it’s the way it really happened, it ought to be the way it really happened.” ”
I actually took a similar tack to Joe Loya, who’s quoted at the beginning of this story: I left out a few details of my father’s case that were complicated, unbelievable, and in my judgment not relevant to the heart of the story. I’m happy to say I fabricated nothing–and would never have considered doing so. I did recreate pages of dialogue from when I was 10 years old, and those pages, while true to my memory, are reconstructed and obviously not verbatim. Memoir writing is not journalism, but just as any journalist should be ready to wrangle with her conscience and come out clean, so should any memoir writer.
It’s a hornet’s nest of issues for working writers to debate–and if you’re working on a memoir, or thinking about doing so, of just want to enter the tussle, take note: San Francisco’s non-profit writing center 826 Valencia is holding an adult seminar 6 p.m. this Sunday on memoir writing. I’ll be on the panel, as will Joe Loya, Julia Scheeres, and Michelle Tea, and Dave Eggers will be moderating. Click here for the details.