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Memoirs and Self-Mythography

One reviewer of Lauren Winner’s popular memoir Girl Meets God interestingly suggested that the author was not far enough removed from her own history to see it clearly. There’s much truth to this. No doubt there’s events in our own lives that require distance — both physically, emotionally, and chronologically — for us to perceive them accurately.

t-fWith the current popularity of memoirs right now, this reality should not go ignored. Truth is, sometimes we see things differently the further away we get from them. So a hastily written memoir, i.e., one written on the heels of a tragedy, scandal, or event, often lacks the perspective that time can bring.

However, there’s an opposite side to this: the further away you get from an event, the more mythic it can become. Which leads to two potential extremes:

  • The memoirist is too close to events and lacks perspective
  • The memoirist is so far removed that events become mythic

Many of us have experienced childhood tragedy, trauma, or simply normal life events that, as we mature, seem to become iconic in our imagination. Certain experiences loom large or haunt us. Like those films we loved as children or adolescents, which upon later review lose their magic. The further we get away from them the more powerful and moving they become. But viewed through a more “mature” lens, they are a lot less enchanting.

As I’ve been assembling my own memoir, I’m realizing how easy, how tempting it is, to mythologize some life events. Some things seem so much bigger and dramatic than they probably actually were. My father seems bigger. My childhood seems scarier. My conversion seems electric. Yes, I am far enough away from many of these events to have the necessary perspective. Now I face another problem: Dividing reality from myth.

Oddly, when it comes to memoirs, there seems to be a growing tolerance for fiction. The argument goes, as long as events are “perceived” to be real by an author, they are valid. Perception is, literally, reality. As a result, pseudo-scholarly debates have ensued about the differences between memoirs and novels, essential truth and factual truth. Apparently, many believe that as long as something “resonates” within a reader, facts are irrelevant.

James Frey’s memoirs are a good example..

You’ll remember, Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was highlighted by Oprah Winfrey back in 2006 and became a best-seller before being debunked as being factually inaccurate. A publishing backlash ensued and Oprah eventually confronted Frey on her show.

However, Frey was defended by some. For instance, Josh Getlin chronicled the reaction to Frey’s memoirs, suggesting that all the hoopla may have been an over-reaction. Innocent authors were, as a result, being unduly put through the ringer, scoured for possible plagiarism, and tried for the slightest embellishments. One editor described Frey’s “literary license” as harmless “self-mythography:

To be sure, Frey crossed the line by going on television, in an earlier appearance on the Winfrey show, and claiming that made-up incidents in his memoir were true. But a simple reading of his book would reveal that “this was self-mythography,” said Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a respected independent publishing house. “If you read it with clear eyes, you couldn’t possibly take this stuff literally. And so in that sense, it wouldn’t really matter if it was true or not.” (bold mine)

So if the events in a memoir appear made-up, it shouldn’t really matter. As long as you realize they’re made-up.

Oprah’s taking to task of Frey’s memoir inevitably revealed an odd discrepancy in the publishing ranks. On the one hand, you had agents and editors who began rigorously fact-checking their clients’ tortured tales for historical accuracy. On the other hand, were editors who conceded “falsehood” as personalized myth.

  • Fact checking for “falsehood”
  • Tolerating “falsehood” as personal mythology

The real sticking point was what Oprah later admitted to Larry King: “the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me.”

So as long as a memoir “resonates” with its readers, historical accuracy is inconsequential.

Perhaps this is why, shortly after oprah publicly confronted Frey for lying in his memoir, she faced a huge backlash from viewers. Among them was New Age icon Marianne Williamson who accused Oprah of playing God. Apparently, fact-checking is out of our jurisdiction. Which eventually led to Oprah apologizing to James Frey for taking him to task.

Myth-1. Fact-0.

Where does this all leave the memoirist? Hard to say. On the one hand, names and dates are important. But while placing myself in the burning fuselage of a plane in free fall over the jungles of Burma in ’72 might not be factual, if it resonates with my readers, who cares?

Maybe the moral of the story is, Write it as you see it. Or felt it. In our age, there’s no more lying — it’s only self-mythography.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas April 10, 2013, 6:30 AM

    “Among them was New Age icon Marianne Williamson who accused Oprah of playing God.” There is some humorous irony in this.

    You make good points about memoirs, and your points are the reason I will probably never write one. I notice even in my blog I have to be careful not to fictionalize and overstate things that have happened in my past. I’ve also noticed that, depending on my mood, I may interpret an event one way, while in an opposite mood, I may extrapolate an entirely different meaning from the event. Then I realize I’m confusing myself so I stop writing.

    • billgncs April 10, 2013, 9:46 AM

      sometimes our stories are worth telling.

  • Kat Heckenbach April 10, 2013, 6:39 AM

    Any time someone tells their side of the story, even their own story–or maybe, especially their own story–there is bias. Every time. Do readers not realize this?

  • xdpaul April 10, 2013, 8:06 AM

    If it helps, Burmese burning freefall fuselage totally resonates with me.

    Maybe you could start a band with that name, at least to wedge it into your memoir.

  • Jill April 10, 2013, 9:01 AM

    I’ve written a lot about perception and truth in memoirs. I’m not sure a writer has a better perspective closer to the events. All life experiences are filtered through the senses. Both immediate processing and the processing of stored memories are tainted by perception. Our brains are marvelous machines, after all, that help us cope with the world around us. However, there is a huge difference between making up stories and writing true memories that have been tainted by perception. The memoirist who makes up stories should just write fiction. I’m frankly sick of all the invented memoirs that have come out in the last few years. I’m also a little sick of young people writing memoirs because, even if they are true, they often come across as works inspired by narcissism or hedonism. As an avid reader and writer of memoirs, that’s my take on it.

    • Jeanne Lombardo April 26, 2013, 10:23 AM

      Jill’s comment hits the nail on the head. Expressing a true memory through a perspective that carries through a theme or tries to get at a deeper meaning to the event is valid. Making up a dramatic story is not. The whole point of memoir is to learn something through another human being’s actual experience.

      Just found this blog through a friend who sent me the link. I appreciate the thoughtful discussion here.

  • Matthew Sample II April 10, 2013, 12:57 PM

    Hmmmm. What if I build up a false mythology online via social media, but then write the truth in book form… how will the fact-checkers cope?

  • Melissa Ortega April 11, 2013, 7:23 AM

    This pretty much sums up why I prefer books that label themselves as fiction. They’re truer than non-fiction. It’s when fiction calls itself non-fiction that people get confused. Even “fictionalized accounts of true life events” have people quoting films as fact – heck, even Tony Blair quoted his lines from The Queen as if they had happened in real life in his memoir.

    Fiction is honest. Everything else is commentary.

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