John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.
Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:
In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.
Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. (For the record, I agree with Bock here.) Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners.
Memoir vs. journalism in its use of memory and imagination
But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before? I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.
Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.
Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir.
However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.
Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.
I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?
The slippery, constructed nature of memory
The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”
Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”
I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple. You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole. You’re using your imagination. Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking: “What was that? Who were those people?” So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.
In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:
There are things that you just don’t forget. These things are imprinted onto you. And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .
I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.
I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”