Truth vs. Fact: To Memoir

It should be a verb: to memoir. We all do it in one way or another, but those of us who try to make art of it are particularly vulnerable to the above distinction between truth and fact. Which is which, and does it matter?

Memoir books are famous for having in their few decades of faddishness completely worn out the word "fact" to a degree that its dull metal shows under the thin silver sheen, revealing an old base spoon that just keeps dipping back into the sugar. How much fact is actually embodied in these books? Does the author herself even know? Recent scientific studies indicate that, contrary to previous theories, a strong emotional component to a memory does not necessarily ensure its accuracy.

In writing a childhood memoir, I found myself trying to accomplish Herculean feats of recall. No one can do this, I thought many times. No one can remember enough of their childhood to fill a book and flesh out the characters. Memory is full of images (mine is at least), and even tones of voice, but rarely whole conversations. How can I write a whole book without any conversation?

Then a friend of mind who knows the writer Annie Dillard reported a phone conversation with Annie in which she referred to her childhood memoir, An American Childhood, as "that tissue of lies." And I was freed to make the book I had to make.

The writing of memoir – whether a whole book or a single essay or poem – requires a re-evaluation of Truth, capital letter included. It requires thinking carefully about how fact can lie its way toward veracity. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," Emily Dickinson advised, probably for the good reason that she, too, could not recall all the specific details.

On a poetry listserv I belong to, I recently heard a vigorous and intelligent discussion of honesty in writing. Among the many though-provoking comments about truthfulness and art, self-censorship with respect to the feelings of others, and veracity in writing from personal experience, I came across this gem:

"Art ideally can transmute anything in its crucible and make it able to brave the gaze – not that art disguises anything but that it digests it, just as we digest things in life that are painful and come to have a more complex perspective on them that takes them out of the specifically personal realm."

That, I believe, is the goal of memoir: to digest the raw truth and turn it into the complex, many-sided truth of art, the truth that can see things from all sides of the question, all points of view at the same time, as though we had eyes all over our heads and could time-travel. Artful memoir lifts the reader out of the experience at the same time as it plunges her into the experience, giving a touch of omniscience to the process of feeling and experience.

Have an omniscient childhood as you write about it! And for artful childhood memoirs that probably were half-invented because of their exquisite detail and fictional liveliness, take look at:

An American Childhood – Annie Dillard
Lost in Place – Mark Salzman
Angela's Ashes – Frank McCourt

More memoir-writing resources: