Becoming a Credible Memoirist—Oxymoron?  I Think Not.

We all know that art is not truth.  Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

—Pablo Picasso

The above image Still Life with Compote and Glass, a painting by Pablo Picasso, coupled with the quote above, help me think about the relationship between the art of memoir and truth.  What is a painting beyond strokes of paint on a canvas? And what is a memoir beyond a story of what happened? They are both an interpretation.

In the memoir essays I write, the story is not only about what happened.  What happened is a frame; the narrative is a vehicle to deeper meaning.  Patricia Hampl in “Red Sky in the Morning” explains that memoirists should strive for universality in their own writing—

Memoirists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to ‘tell a story.’  They want to tell it all—the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself.  That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence (18).

This idea, that a memoirist wants to prove every life is part of the cosmos, sounds idealistic and somewhat new-agey, but what Hampl says rings true to me.  I don’t want to merely tell my own story.  I want to tell a story that other people can relate to and find truth in.

One of the topics I write about in my manuscript is the story of my father’s imprisonment when I was a child.  My father spent six years in federal prison for either drug trafficking or money laundering or both.  My intuition tells me he went to jail for both, but I’m not sure.  I know little about him, except for the fact that I have his wide teeth and knobby kneecaps. But I do know he sent me letters from a federal penitentiary. I just don’t know exactly why he was there. I called the DEA and requested for the court records, but I need my dad’s permission, permission I haven’t asked for because I am not ready for that awkward conversation.

Most readers may not relate to having a father in prison, but they can relate to wanting to know more about a mysterious person.  Many people are curious about who their parents were before they were born.  My story speaks to this.  Why do I want to know about him?  Why do I want to understand him?  Why do I feel that if I understand him I will understand myself?  That’s my story—not the fact that I had an unconventional childhood or that I was a sad eight-year-old.

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Some might say that because I don’t have all the details about my father and because I speculate about him that I can’t come to many conclusions about him.  My argument to naysayers who believe that a memoirist should only use the facts is that facts don’t change the truth of the story I want to tell; also, what if the people concerned don’t remember the facts?  What if we don’t talk to the people who are in our memories? What if the people in our memories are liars? What if the people in our memories are dead? 

 

What matters is the truth of the story I want to tell, and for a memoirist truth comes in many forms: facts, memories, craft features, and universal experience.

What do you think?

 

Work Cited

Hampl, Patricia. “Red Sky in the Morning.” I Could Tell Your Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

8 thoughts on “Becoming a Credible Memoirist—Oxymoron?  I Think Not.

    1. Thank you for reading and posting a comment, Salwa. I agree that a writer’s interpretations are important in a story (good reflection is awesome), but I think the reader should also be left to interpret the story. For me right now, it’s hard to strike a balance. As I get closer to having a clear idea of my manuscript’s narrative arc, I will also need to have my family members read my book, to make sure they are okay with what I’ve written and interpreted. Thanks again!

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  1. This here: “What happened is a frame; the narrative is a vehicle to deeper meaning.” Great article. I’m seeing more discussions around how much fiction is allowed (if any) in memoir. I want to respond that it’s all fiction because unless you have a unedited videotape of your life, you can never really be 100% sure of the facts. I remember my mother saying things to me when I was a child that she has since denied ever saying. We can’t both be right and yet we can. I have my memory and she has chosen to forget hers. But who will the reader believe? And why shouldn’t the reader believe me because I grew up with that memory and it has formed me. Even if she didn’t say things exactly as I remember them, she said something that left a mark. You don’t want to go the road of A Million Little Pieces and just fictionalize your life; yet, creative license is necessary for getting at the truth.

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    1. I agree all the way with what you’re saying here, and I have had similar experiences talking about shared memories–what one person remembers and another forgets might depend on whether the experience shaped them, like you said. What’s important to another person and their worldview might be in contrast with yours. I think this illustrates the subjectivity of memories. We can only do the best with the resources we have for memories. I have old journals that help me to remember the emotions and thought processes that help me characterize younger me. Sometimes I wonder why I chose nonfiction as my genre. It’s limiting and freeing at the same time.

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      1. You make an excellent point, that what we remember depends on whether and how the experience shaped us. I know my sisters and I probably have very different memories of our shared childhood experiences because they are so much older than me. Their perspective of what is or is not important would be very different. Much of my story writing is sorting through these issues. I have some nonfiction pieces but I do fear my family’s reaction if any of them (including cousins) ever read them. So I cover it up with fiction 😉

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