Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Memoir or Novel?

Over lunch on Memorial Day, my friends and I got to talking about the memoir genre and how much poetic license a memoirist has. After the flap over two notoriously fraudulent memoirs that came out in 2006, writers of memoir continue to have questions about how factually accurate a personal narrative must be before it ceases to be a memoir and turns into a novel.

The best discussion of this subject that I've read was in the Spring 2006 Authors Guild Bulletin. Guild president Nick Taylor talked with William Zinsser, editor of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and author of Writing About Your Life. Here are excerpts from that conversation and the Q&A that followed:

ZINSSER: You have to invent a narrative trajectory that makes sense, that draws people along. Which can mean compressing, collapsing or collating events. But underneath all the "inventing" -- you may be altering the chronological order, or the place where certain things took place -- you are not tampering with the essential truth of the story. ... I think the truth is sacred and you have to stick to the facts.

TAYLOR: ... obviously you don't remember every scrap of conversation you ever had, but if you're conveying the essence and the truth of what a particular conversation was about, then I think that's perfectly acceptable. Your own ears hear things and your own eyes see things, and your memory retains how you process those things. You're not straying from the truth if you're paraphrasing dialogue, for example.

ZINSSER: For many years I've been teaching adult courses in memoir writing and family history ... The reason people take courses like mine is that they want to know how to think about using writing to come to some understanding of who they are, and who they once were, and what heritage they were born into ... my students are trying with courage and grace to clarify the past. They may not finally do it, but that is the intention. [M]ost writers of memoir ... are desperately trying to use writing to find the truth about their lives.

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