As a memoirist who is not a fan of the label “creative” being applied to nonfiction, I’ve had trouble with the idea of The Truth as far back as I can remember. I blame Catholicism.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the tradition, Catholics secret themselves into little booths that line church walls to confess their sins to their Lord’s intermediary.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
So far, truthful.
“It has been [insert amount of time here] since my last confession.”
That next line was where I started going off the rails. Because my family moved frequently, months could pass between visits to the confessional chamber. Were I to really say how long it had been since my last confession, I’d never get away with the few sins I was willing to admit.
Mention taking the Lord’s name in vain? Sure, at least I sounded honest. Disobeyed mom and dad? Okay, as long as I didn’t get too specific. Masturbating? Oh Hell, no! Wait, was that even a sin? The fact was, I didn’t feel bad enough my indiscretions to actually try stopping. I never thought it was about the Hail Marys. Repentance meant saying you were sorry, then changing your ways.
Later, when I encountered 12-step groups, this was the case as well. Admit your problem in order to change your behavior. Certainly, I’ve found it to be true that you’re only as sick as your secrets. But, really, as memoirists, are we to have none?
Nothing but the Truthiness
Of the many notable things Mary Karr says in her book The Art of Memoir, one is this: “Changes in the novel have helped to jack up memoir’s audience,” she writes. “As fiction grew more fabulist or dystopic or hyperintellectual … readers thirsty for reality began imbibing memoir.”
While this somewhat explains the huge rise in memoir, and gives a glimpse into what we’re to be doing as memoirists, recreating reality, it fails to recognize the key point. The very definition of “reality” is what causes most problems.
As David Carr so poignantly showed in The Night of the Gun, truth is in the hands of the teller. The story begins with a horrific tale of being held at gunpoint, then proceeds, reportage style, to offer eye-witness accounts attesting that it was Carr who held the gun. Memory is like beauty. It’s not so universally agreed upon as we think, and our views around it are rarely merciful.
What part of crafting nonfiction isn’t creative?
Much of what passes for creative nonfiction is, in fact, flights of fancy in the style of the surreal, or literary, or so-called humor. Such distinctions fail to recognize a critical point, however.
There is no such thing as the unbridled truth.
Whether a thing is recounted truthfully or not depends on who has the audience at any given time. Even without purposeful subterfuge, the truth is we lie to ourselves. This is how we live with our own wretched behavior. And this is exactly why we like memoir.
We read memoir to learn about ourselves. Reading another person’s story can be like taking apart what they did wrong, so I might be saved from the horror, or borrowing from what they did right. Even when (maybe especially when) our stories are dissimilar, a memoir offers the right amount of distance to see my own reflection.
The job of the memoirist is to unpack their life’s mysteries, and put them on view for all to see. How this is done is the very art itself, it’s all creative.
The stories that get told matter.
As a journalist who’s lived extensively in the Middle East, I’ve observed firsthand the devastating ways that differences in reporting can affect the interpretation of events. As a woman I understand that when stories aren’t told, they’re forgotten. And as a human, I know that stories impact other people, and this is where the truth can become problematic.
Just ask Nick Flynn, author of the beautiful memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. In his 20s he wrote a fictional tale including a character resembling his mother. She mentioned the story in the suicide note she left behind after fatally shooting herself. And that was fiction.
Yet Flynn went on to write memoir, including both his mother and still very-much-alive father. One of the reasons his writing is so moving is for his ability to portray his seriously damaged parents in a loving way.
In my case, I meant my first book to be a tome of witty essays about life in Qatar, a place where women wrapped head-to-toe in black float through shopping malls, right past ads for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. I mean, my God, a Muslim man can get a divorce just by saying, “I divorce you,” (or, talaq) three times. How could I not write about the place?
Then my husband ended our marriage over the telephone, from another country. Writing pithy observer-style thought pieces about how messed up it was for women in the Muslim world seemed disingenuous at best. Thus I had to insert myself in my story.
Or, as Meghan Daum wrote for Why We Write About Ourselves, “when I want to go really deeply into a topic, and I want to do it right, I sometimes feel I have no choice but to mine my own history and experience. I can’t research or report or interview my way around it. I have to open my own vein.”
A Final Note
In general, I walk around with the fear that I’m doing something that might be making my life harder (or worse somehow). What memoir shows me, in its most creative act, is that life is rough on all of us, and we’re all in it together.
Alexandra Fuller put it best when speaking to PBS, saying “everyone called [my book] brutally honest. And it really made me realize how much everybody else must just be lying through their teeth all the time.”
Telling the truth, in this era in particular, may be the most daring act of creativity to engage in.
Lisa L. Kirchner teaches online memoir writing for the New York Writers Workshop. Class info is here.