The dialogue over memoir continues. In an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Trouble with Memoirs,” (11/1/08), Nicholas Dawidoff declares memoir, “A pack of lies set down by a desperate humdrum character trying to cash in on the craze for misery.”
Dawidoff, I should point out, is a two-time memoirist himself who wrote a biographical memoir of his grandfather called The Fly Swatter, and a companion book, The Crowd Sounds Happy, which tells the story of his youth. Is he a desperately humdrum character setting down lies to cash in on the craze for misery? Well, no. The Fly Swatter was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Crowd Sounds Happy got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and neither are particularly miserable. His outburst relates to the James Freys and Margaret Selzers of the world—writers who create fictional renditions of their lives, endow them with imagined dialogue, and then peddle them as “memoirs.” Neither does he excuse the David Sedarises and (I would add) the Augusten Burroughses who turn their daily lives into voyeuristic entertainment bolstered by comic writing and made-up dialogue. (After Frey was caught, Sedaris admitted to Time that he was a "huge exaggerator," and when Burroughs was sued for defamation he retracted the word "memoir" from Running with Scissors, and called it "book.")
But back to Frey and Selzer. When a writer is head down and pounding away on a memoir exactly at the time when the world is condemning scam memoirists, he or she can’t help but rear up with indignation. “When strangers asked what I was up to,” Dawidoff says in his article, “and I told them, at the very mention of the word memoir disrepute flickered in the air and, like a Republican candidate right after Watergate, I was implicated merely by association -- just another mountebank peddling bogus biography. Measures would have to be taken.”
The measures he took were to turn his post-Frey book The Crowd Sounds Happy into a “tremendous research project,” traveling to the places his grandfather lived, interviewing people, digging through files and letters in search of “exclusive detail.” In defiance of the sloppy sensationalism of memoirs making news, Dawidoff “also spent a lot of time in libraries, archives and on the telephone, verifying my recollections, adjusting remembered impressions to coincide with clear evidence.” He calls this a “less-glamorous” way of writing a memoir, but one that is growing more common since the Frey affair.
Like Dawidoff, I was writing my memoir Waiting for the Apocalypse when the Frey story broke. After reading about it on Smoking Gun, I felt like I was swimming in a pool another swimmer had peed in. And there was the swimmer, grinning at me and saying, “Yeah, I peed in the pool. What are you going to do about it?” What was I going to do? I couldn’t drain the pool. I had to swim in that jerk’s contamination, and wait for it to filter out. Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to foul the pool further. Scrolling down through the pages of my first draft with a critical eye, I looked for exaggerations, creative contrivances, and outright lies, asking myself if I’d consciously or unconsciously changed my story even an iota to make it more sellable, or self-aggrandizing. Happily, I was clean. Probably because, personally, I don’t think of research as unglamorous. On the contrary, I get pumped up doing research. When I began my memoir, I knew the amount of fact-finding I was in for. And I was happy about it. If a writer needs to make up facts, then the facts aren’t worth writing about in the first place.
When Oprah invited Frey back to the show along with his publisher Nan Talese, I Tivo’d the show. I wanted Frey to apologize to writers everywhere. I wanted him to say, “Sorry guys. Because of me, your credibility is now questionable.” And I wanted him to tell readers that he was the exception, not the rule. He did not apologize. He did not explain. He said the book was “true to him,” and his editor said the book carried “emotional truth.” Doubletalk.
It was a lesson I took it to heart. Like Dawidoff, I set out to be absolutely, flawlessly truthful. Not dull, mind you. But truthful. Dull is bad. Truthful is good. “The thinking is that. . . fact-checking your memoir diminishes it as a high-literary form, that it's somehow grubbily journalistic to be sure of yourself,” Dawidoff says. The thinking is wrong. I love language, I love the way it can make a truth shine, and be interesting, and funny, and poignant, and memorable, and moving, and witty, and intimate, and daring. I admit, I shamelessly exploit language when I write. Diddling with the facts, though, is a different thing entirely.
Another author, David Carr, who is a New York Times columnist, wrote a book about his life called it The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. To write it he treated his life story as if he were chasing a newspaper story, interviewing everyone who knew him during his drug years and getting their version of him, correct or not. "You can't know the whole truth," he said. "But if there is one it lies in the space between people."
I did something similar to both Dawidoff and Carr, but with the addition of a paper trail. I wanted all my facts to be recorded in hardcopy. It may seem extreme to some, but for me it was helpful beyond measure. I made appointments to interview my mother, father, siblings, and a few close friends. I asked tough questions and wrote down everything. On the phone with my brother Danny one night, I asked him to describe his years in Brazil and quietly typed his entire monologue on the computer as he spoke (I’m a fast typist and he spoke slow). I verified everything by going through boxes of old letters (my mom saved everything), and dug through my dad’s files (there were reams). I collected all relevant paperwork into a file. I went to the library and read through back issues of Time, Life, The New York Times, and other journals and took notes to back up my parent’s memory. I perused Mom’s ragged recipe book and rifled through photographs. I dragged out my old journals, which date back twenty years. I emailed my dad with very specific questions. “If I asked you what you might have said on February 25th 1977 to Harry Doten on the subject of (fill in the blank), what would you say?” Dad was clear. “I remember exactly what I said. I said this, this, and this.” And then he’d quote himself (he has a very good memory, by the way.)
This whole process may not be glamorous, but one thing is for sure. Once you've done the research and have your paper trail, you are free to be as poetic with language as you like. Because, after all, your story is yours to tell in your own way, and you wouldn’t want to tell it any other.
Dawidoff article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122548613006589015.html
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