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Lying in the Land of Memoir: Straddling the Line Between Fact and Fiction

By Kathleen Finneran

I've never been good at telling the truth. From the time I first encountered stories as a child, I understood that they were meant to be manipulated, details added or deleted toward a desired result. I suspect the situation is the same for most memoirists. I suspect we have trouble with the unalterable truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and that we turn to memoir because it provides us with a legitimate way of lying.

To supporters of memoir--writers and readers like myself, this may seem a shocking statement, a betrayal of sorts, ill-considered in its confession, arrogant in its speculation. But to others, to those who have rallied hard in recent years against the modern memoir, it may be a welcome admission, one that finally satisfies the skeptics, those eager to challenge how much we memoirists actually remember and how much we make up.

How much do I remember? How much do I make up? As a writer of memoir, as a teacher of memoir writing, these are the questions I am asked most often. Readers wonder how much liberty I've taken with my life; students want to know how free they can be with the facts. Long before I was being asked these questions directly, I was aware that they had become the central questions in any discussion -- critical or casual -- about memoir. During the question and answer session following memoirists' readings, audience members inevitably inquire about the depth of the writer's memory. And more often than not, these inquiries are coupled with inferred challenges in which the questioner stakes his or her claim as someone whose memory is renowned, extolled, laudable at the least. Questions the like of: 'Mr. McCourt, I pride myself on having a superb memory, friends and relatives verify that I do, but I must say my memory looks like a shallow pool next to yours. When you wrote 'Angela's Ashes,' so many years after the events you describe, how could you possibly have remembered...?' Or 'Ms. Karr, given how much drug use you cop to in your second memoir 'Cherry,' I wonder how you were able to remember the many vivid details of the younger years that you write about in that book and in 'The Liar's Club.' I have a sterling memory, and I've never experimented with drugs of any type, still I would be at a loss to recreate my childhood in such detail.' Not questions, so much as veiled accusations: I can't remember as much about my life, so how can you remember as much about yours?

Writing in 'The New York Times Book Review' in May 1997 -- the late 1990s, if not the entire decade, marked the years when, as premier memoirist Patricia Hampl puts it, the memoir 'emerged as the signature genre of the age' -- Anna Quindlen took this same approach to memoir. In her article 'How Dark? How Stormy? I Can't Recall,' she writes:

' I can't remember the spread on my parent's bed. If it was quilted satin, I can't remember running my small hand over its smooth surface when I was 6 or 7 years old. If it was chenille, I can't recall feeling the bobbles beneath my palm as I sat and watched in the mirror as my mother braided my long hair.

If I were creating life in a novel, these are the sorts of details that would make the difference between a stick figure of a story and something that had the smell, the feel, the noisy allure of real life. And so I would invent them. They are the sorts of details, too, that make memoir feel as though we are living a life in tandem with the writer who lived it first. But I do not have them at my disposal, and so the arc of my work is forever circumscribed. I will never write a memoir, even though the form has become the oeuvre du jour. I've got a lousy memory.'

As it happens, I CAN remember the spread on my parents' bed when I was seven. The reason I remember it, as is the reason I remember most of the minute details that, as Quindlen expresses so well, elevate a story from 'stick figure' status, is because it is tied to a much larger memory, one I have of sitting on my parents' bed in the late afternoon with my father on the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. When his assassination was discussed at school, my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Marcus, told us that some grown-ups, maybe even our own parents, welcomed the news that Dr. King was dead.

So that is why I remember that the spread on my parents' bed when I was seven was powder blue. I remember the calm color of it between my father and me as I sat beside him while he removed his work shoes. I remember his hand covering mine to stop me from pulling on a loose thread. It was a hard, nylon thread that punched a pattern into the dull cotton, forming a design my mother called 'fleur de lis,' something that sounded much too fancy for the cheap feel of the fabric. My father's hand stopped mine from inflicting further damage to the spread. He had big, coarse, bricklayer hands, and I liked the feel of them against my skin. I asked him if he welcomed Dr. King's death. What the hell kind of question is that, he wondered, and he removed his hand from mine.

I don't remember anything else about that afternoon. I don't remember my father's answer, if he answered. I don't think he did. I don't think he did because when I return to that moment, I have a memory that has no other words attached to it, a memory that contains only the feeling of my father moving away from me.

I have an exceptional memory. Most memoirists do. But I don't think it is the quality of our memories that draw us toward memoir. No, it is something much more than that, something that remains unrecognized by those readers, those audience members, who question the veracity of what we write, who seek to separate each detail of our story into piles marked 'true' and 'untrue.' What draws us, as writers, to memoir is the need -- not just the desire, but the absolute necessity -- to commemorate major and minor moments in our lives and the people and places in them. This can't be achieved through fiction, however autobiographical we make it.

But why we write memoir is another topic. Whether we manipulate the truth in memoir is the matter at hand. We do, but we don't usually do it in the details. In the interest of answering the contentions of skeptics, but more importantly, in the service of would-be memoirists who need to know how much they can play with their material, here are three ways that I, and other memoirists I know, test the line between fact and fiction.

1. We make up dialogue.
It's hard for me to believe that readers assume the dialogue in memoirs is written verbatim, but they do. I haven't yet met a memoirist who can remember crucial conversations -- especially those dating back to childhood -- word for word. Most memoirists admit, as I do, that they recall either a central line of the dialogue or some semblance of what was said, and construct the dialogue around those words. It's the intention, purpose or message of the conversation that we aim to recreate and remain true to.

2. We conflate time and construe it to our advantage.
In the interests of creating a cohesive, non-sprawling story, we sometimes merge experiences or minimize the time between events. For example, one of the chapters of my memoir tells the story of viewing a video an uncle had made of home movies he had taken of my brothers, my sisters and me when we were children. We had not anticipated seeing my younger brother Sean, who had killed himself a few years earlier, in the video as we thought our uncle had stopped making home movies long before Sean was born. To our surprise, and central to the chapter in my memoir, Sean appears in footage near the end.

I wrote the chapter as if my entire family were watching the video together on New Year's Day 1990. In fact, my older brother and his wife were not there. They watched the tape the night after, when my parents and I viewed it a second time. Why not write these experiences as the separate occasions that they were? Dealing with time in stories, juggling the ins and outs of it, can become a narrative nightmare; and staying true to time, because of the extra set-ups and explanations it can require, can often detract from the point of the story. What was important to me were the reactions of my various family members as we watched our past on film, and more importantly, as we encountered Sean again, seeing him animated in a way that photographs -- which were our only visual record of him prior to discovering him on the video -- did not allow. Seeing someone walk again, laugh again, climb onto someone's lap again, someone whom you'd had no hope of seeing do those things again, carries with it quite an emotional impact. It was the emotional impact that was important to me, not that some of us felt the force of it one night, while others did not feel the force of it until the next.

3. We leave stuff out.
Some people think that to tell a true story, you have to tell the whole story. Most memoirists realize that you can tell a truer story by leaving some stuff out. I don't mean that we omit crucial elements. I mean that we don't include those elements that aren't crucial. In a scene in my memoir, for example, I write about the last night I saw my brother alive. We went to my older sister's house to play Uno, a card game that she and Sean were fond of. Along with Sean, my sister and me, my brother-in-law and baby niece are present. They are crucial to the events of the evening. The way Sean interacted with my niece -- feeding her, changing her diaper, playing with her, putting her to sleep - --showed parts of his personality that I wanted readers to see. As did the verbal exchanges he had with my brother-in-law. Two friends of my sister's were also there that evening. You will not know that from reading my book. Just as you will not know that Annie Dillard wasn't living alone at Tinker Creek during the year she recounts in her memoir 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.' Does it matter? To some, it might. But for me, the choice to include my sister's friends in my depiction of that night would have meant bringing in unnecessary characters, characters whose presence and participation did not make the story any more of less meaningful in its relation to my brother's life and death; just as the presence of anyone else at Tinker Creek did not change the story Annie Dillard was interested in telling. Certainly, the presence of those people changes the actual experience, but they do not change the story at the CENTER of the experience, and it is the story at the center that is most important to the memoirist.

Those are just three examples of how we memoirists take liberties with the truth. But what's more important for readers and writers of memoir to understand is that memoirs are made of memories, and memories are mere impressions, remnants, imprints on our minds that, for some reason, withstand time. Why do we remember one moment of our lives and not another? A mystery. And why do those moments we remember reshape themselves sometimes, showing us that our memories are not static truths, but malleable entities that form and reform. Another mystery. In the introduction to his book 'Somehow Form A Family: Stories That Are Mostly True,' Tony Earley writes:

' On the night of July 20, 1969, my little sister and I followed our father into the backyard, where we studied the moon through a surveyor's transit owned by a neighbor. Peering through the eyepiece, I felt as if I could almost see Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface, which made the universe seem very large and, simultaneously, very small. It's one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. When I wrote about that night almost thirty years later, I described the full moon in detail, how, once magnified, it had seemed almost too bright to look at. When a fact checker at Harper's magazine informed me that the moon on the night of July 20, 1969, had not been full, but had been a waxing crescent, I refused at first to believe her. When I looked it up myself and discovered that she was right, I was faced on one hand with a memory so strong I was sure it had to be true, and on the other hand, with an objective truth significantly different than what I remembered. At that moment, I came to understand, if not embrace, the true nature of the phrase creative nonfiction.'

Earlier in this article, I boldly claimed memory of my parents' bedspread when I was seven. When recalling that day, what I couldn't remember was what time of year it had been when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Was it fall? Spring? I looked it up and was gratified to learn that it was April when I sat beside my father and asked him if he welcomed Dr. King's death (I had had a faint sense that it was spring). What shocked me was to learn that Dr. King was killed in 1968. I was not seven, but nearly eleven. I could not have been in second grade, so it would not have been Sister Mary Marcus, but Sister Francis Ann, my fourth grade teacher, who made the statement that ultimately led my father to move his hand from mine.

In my mind, I have always associated Sister Mary Marcus with those words, with that day, with an opening in my soul that had to do with some new understanding about the world, something I would later learn the name for -- racism. In my mind, I had always tied Sister Mary Marcus to that memory of my father's hand moving from mine. Was it because Sister Mary Marcus had dark skin, and Sister Francis Ann was frail? Was it because I confused the talk at school of Martin Luther King's assassination with that of President Kennedy's, for whose death I really was seven and, therefore, would have really been in Sister Mary Marcus's room. I don't know. I don't know the answers about memory -- about what's true and what's not.

But the bedspread, I assure you, was blue.

Meet the Author: Kathleen Finneran