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Memoir Monday: Poetic License

Even before the the James Frey debacle, we saw disclaimers in memoirs that let the reader know that time was condensed or that characters’ names were changed in order to protect them or that various characters were combined. When I first started writing my memoir, a few—ah hem—years ago, I was paranoid about inaccuracies. What if I don’t know what dress Sarah was wearing the night we went to dinner? What if I describe her as wearing black Comme des Garcons shoes, and she doesn’t own any Comme des Garcons shoes? Will she sue me? My writers’ group assured me that my friend would not sue me over the brand of her shoes. I began to take liberties with guessing what someone likely would have been wearing, and what they likely would have said. (Think of Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes. He was drunk most of that time, so how could he possibly remember exactly what was said? He didn’t. He recreated the dialogue to the best of his knowledge.)

The more workshops I took, the more liberties I was encouraged to take. A workshop leader at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference told me that I could rearrange the order of events if I needed to in order to make my story work. I could, for example, say that I went to Germany and then to Japan when, in fact, I had done the reverse. Why would I WANT to rearrange events? In order to make the story arc work. Because so much has to be left out of a memoir, sometimes the parts left in don’t make sense in the order that they really happened. An example in my book: I wanted to end the story on my paragliding in India, but I went paragliding BEFORE my mother was dying in the hospital. I didn’t want to end the book on that depressing note. I wanted to end it on a positive note, and because the events happened so close together and there was no real difference in which happened first, I reversed them. So now I visit my mom in the hospital and then go paragliding in India. It complicates things, because now I can’t mention the yoga class I took in India in the scene with my mother, but that’s a choice I made. And fiction writers think writing memoir writing is easy!

I also learned that I can not only change the names of characters, but change other identifying characteristics, like nationality or physical appearance, as well. And I can combine characters. But before I continue, let me say that no everyone agrees about these “rules” of memoir. Oscar Villalon, former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said in an interview (that I can no longer find) that he opposed combining characters in a memoir because then it’s no longer memoir. In my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 a Day, there is one scene in which I combine characters. I dated a lot of men while I lived in Paris, and I had a lot of very short relationships with those men. I don’t think the reader really needs to hear about every one of them, so I combined two or three into one. The scene is no more dramatic than it was in real life, but it gave me the chance to divulge a few details from various scenes in an efficient manner—not much different from condensing time.

And speaking of condensing time, I’m grappling with that now as I work through what I hope will be my last revision. In real life, my memoir takes place over the course of six years. Because my book is written mostly in scene with very little summary, it doesn’t work to have it stretched out for six years. So I condensed it to about four. But that’s still too long. I take the reader through a play by play of the first year and then I skip eight months, have another couple of chapters, then skip another entire year. Why? Because what happened during that period of my life was more of the same. Ten trips to Tokyo are condensed into two (and may be condensed further into one), twenty trips to Germany are condensed into two, etc. Real life is VERY VERY different from fiction, and when you try to impose a fiction-like story arc onto real life events, you run into all kinds of problems. And choosing between condensing time and telling the story exactly as it happened can make the difference between getting your book published and not.

My colleague Melanie Gideon wrote a fabulous and very funny book called The Slippery Year that was published last year. Her author’s note states that “timelines and events have been compressed.” An article in the New York Times is more specific: “The events she portrays in the book, which is structured around 12 chapters, each one apparently representing a month in a single year, actually took place over several years. The incident that opens the book, her husband’s purchase of a camper van, actually occurred four years ago, while another chapter, about her son’s first stint at summer camp, took place a year before it appears in the chronology. The rest of the book, Ms. Gideon said, took place in the order she writes about it, over 2007 and 2008.”

In my case, if I condense time any further than the four years I’ve already plotted out, some things no longer make sense. So instead I’m trying to make smoother transitions to “show” the passage of time through exposition rather than a mere, “One year later …” I’d love to tighten the narrative further by turning my year later into a month later, but too many other complications arise, like when I complain that my abusive boyfriend still hasn’t changed after four years, but the reader thinks we’ve only been together for 1.5, etc.

Memoirs are constructed; most people know that. What we choose to include and not include alone dramatically shapes the narrative. (If I only include all the asshole-ish things my ex did, you’ll think he’s a jerk. All those things may be true, but if I don’t include the good things, too, I’m not telling the whole truth.) The point of view shapes the narrative—my ex-boyfriend is going to tell a very different story from mine. The dialogue is constructed, much of the description is constructed (especially if it describes a place that no longer exists), the details, etc. All those things combined with changing names, combining characters, and condensing time mean that memoirs are NOT autobiographies. They are full of mistakes and inaccuracies that are the fault of a lack of information, a lack of research (possibly), and faulty memories. I’ll give you an example. I wrote a scene that took place in a restaurant. I remembered that restaurant very clearly, how it looked and how the stove stood in the middle of the room and I could watch my steak grilling. After writing the scene, I went back to Paris and had dinner at that restaurant. There was no stove in the middle of the room, and the restaurant was about half the size I remembered. I talked to the owner, and the restaurant hadn’t changed in thirty years. I had completely misremembered it.

What really matters, of course, is that you don’t INTENTIONALLY lie in a memoir. If I try my honest-to-goodness best to get the details right and the sense of the scene right and the TRUTH of the scene correct, no one is going to sue me for that (I hope). It’s when you KNOW the truth but make stuff up anyway to make a scene more dramatic (a la Million Little Pieces or JT Leroy) that you’re asking for trouble.

So you tell me, did you KNOW that memoirs take such liberties? Are you okay with it as long as there’s an author’s note? If you write memoir, what liberties have you taken with your timeline, characters, and descriptive details?

11 comments to Memoir Monday: Poetic License

  • Anirban

    Eagerly looking forward to your book, I think it is OK for you to take liberties in the memoir

  • "And fiction writers think writing memoir writing is easy!"

    Lol oh no I do not! Why do you think I'm writing FICTION?! 😛

    "What really matters, of course, is that you don’t INTENTIONALLY lie in a memoir."

    I agree (mostly). Like in your restaurant example: what matters more is not how the restaurant really is, but how you remember it. I mean, it's called MEMOIR for a reason.

    I do realize that memoirs are constructed to varying degrees. What turns me off is only if I stop believing that they are "true." With one popular memoirist in particular, the more I read of his book, the more I thought, "You are a big fat liar! There's no WAY this stuff actually happened." And thus I never finished the book and will probably never read another word of his again.

    But condensation of time, (slight) rearranging of events, etc. — that's okay by me.

  • It is exactly those liberties taken in memoir that interest me–I think they say a lot about the writer, just as much as the story. I love the things that you've done with condensing and moving things so they make sense (or finding that it doesn't). You're right in pointing out that Memoir is not Autobiography…and probably why memoirs are more commercial and appealing even if you're not a celebrity. I also think that it's unnecessary to go any further than a small disclaimer saying "some of the character's names and have been changed for confidentiality, etc., etc." Your memory of things is always going to be different than the real thing, BUT the stuff you remember says something about your personality/psyche/experience, etc. You combine memories, even when you're not conscious of it. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  • I do not expect memoir to be a point-by-point recreation of events. It's not journalism. It's not photography. Memoir is like portrait painting. You're trying to capture not just what happened, but the spirit of what happened. I do think most people understand that. I mean, come on, one of the major problems with real life is that it's not well paced! Who wants THAT level of realism?

    I think you must establish an internal standard for yourself and stick to it. If anything you're writing violates what you feel is that pact you make with your reader — that "this is what really happened and I'm telling you about it to the best of my ability to do so" — , then you shouldn't do it. But just by way of example, I think creating dialogue that is representative of a relationship you've had is fine. Or combining two events into one for the sake of brevity. But changing something just because it makes for a better story, well, I wouldn't do that. The truth of the story is always messy and you have to let that messiness come through in order for it to ring true.

    Memoir is hard, girl. Keep up the good work!

  • Stephen Parrish

    "And fiction writers think memoir writing is easy!"

    Yes, and we always will. Suck it up.

    I happen to be a fan of James Frey. I think personal memoirs should be held to a different standard than nonfiction. For example, if I were you, I'd try very hard to combine all my years in Paris into one. And I don't care how many times you went to Tokyo, in the book, if it's more than once, your readers will yawn.

    Hemingway, in the introduction to his Paris memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST, wrote, "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction my throw some light on what has been written as fact."

    And there you have it. He was writing in the late 1950s, reconstructing dialogues that took place in the 1920s. He exercised profound literary license. A license he had the authority to exercise—because he was writing memoir.

  • The "author's note" doesn't have to be an official separate page or paragraph for me — just as long as the author, at some place in the text, is transparent about indicating there were liberties taken, I don't feel "fooled." The label of nonfiction implies a certain contract between author and reader — that the author has produced a text that is true to the best of his/her knowledge, no? Intent matters.

    I've changed names to protect the people I'm writing about. Haven't done anything to timeline or descriptive details as yet, though. I've also used the technique of having the narrator actively imagine how people *may* have acted/spoken in a time or place where the narrator could not be present. For example, imagining a scene between her parents before she was born. The parents' characters get developed but the reader (hopefully!) can immediately see that the narrator is imagining or hypothesizing based on what she's been told — not insisting that the scene is TRUTH (in that oh so absolute fashion) …

  • So glad everyone agrees that it's okay to take liberties with memoir. It seemed like after Frey's exposure there was a lot of hoopla about sticking to the truth in memoir. But, of course, there's a difference between saying you had your teeth pulled out without drugs and moving that scene to a different part of the book. I think the rule of thumb is, if it COULD have happened, then it's okay to write it (if it could have been raining that day, for example), but if you know for a fact that it didn't happen, you shouldn't write it. Thanks everyone for your comments!

  • I agree that the rule of thumb is that if it could have happened, it’s fine to put in. I’ve read all of Gerald Durrell’s fabulous and funny books about his boyhood with his family on the Greek island Corfu (My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts, and Relatives) and he writes great dialogue, but he used a curious form that I’ve never seen before or since. He wrote “He would say” or “she would do this.” For a long time (when I was a kid), I couldn’t figure out how he could remember such dialogue from his youth. He was 60 and an alcoholic when he wrote the books. My young mind pictured him studiously taking notes everywhere he went, or keeping an extremely detailed diary every night in which he wrote down the day’s exchanges. But there’s no way he did that. So he got around it by using that suggestion of what they said or did. I believe the diary was more or less true to his memory. Interestingly, after the first memoir came out, his family was appalled and railed against him for remembering them like they were in the book. It truly is up to point of view – and POV is your out. YOUR memory is never going to be the same as anyone else’s, so whatever you write is still true to your memory, and thus valid. Unless you make stuff up like James Frey.

  • Sierra – I agree 100% about POV. And if someone in the book disagrees with the way they're portrayed, let her write her own memoir! 🙂

  • Looks interesting, will check this out.