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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

Memoirs: Truth vs. truthiness?

Writers and readers face a conundrum when it comes to memoirs. Should they reflect truth or, as S. Colbert would have it, "truthiness?" Should we write and/or read them with our heads or our hearts? In a way, it comes down to the old divide between art and experience.

The issue acquires special resonance when you're not talking about a memoir per se but rather a fictional account of a life's true events.

Ian Parker's penetrating article 'Inheritance' in the June 2 issue of The New Yorker (pp. 43-55) addresses this indirectly by putting Edward St. Aubyn under much the same sort of microscope through which St. Aubyn examines the characters in his unsettling Melrose novels. While claiming not to be a memoirist, St. Aubyn views the contents of the Melrose novels as memories "treated novelistically," and Parker dedicates much of the article to pinpointing the relationship between truth, creative integrity, and narrative necessity in the novels. Just how much, in other words, is reportage and how much is not? The question, sometimes implied, sometimes articulated, matters, as do the responses to it. Did St. Aubyn set out to write a diverting account, or one that universalizes his experiences for others, or a record of exactly what happened to him and his family?

As always when I contemplate a work drawing on tragic childhood experiences, I'm reminded of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes : A Memoir. Although very different in style, genre, and specifics, it too deals with the terrible circumstances in which a young boy finds himself due to lack of parental responsibility.

McCourt was praised for the "luminosity" of his writing, but called out by some for exaggerating the squalor of his circumstances for effect (and sales). Particular umbrage was taken by old acquaintances and the leading lights of Limerick, where the worst of his childhood was spent. At least some of them considered his account of his experiences there to be the work of a "conman" and "a shameful liar."

"I know nothing about literature, but I do know the difference between fact and fiction," says one man who shared those times in Limerick (quoted by Zoe Brennan in her provocative article in the Mail Online, 21 July 2009, which appeared following McCourt's then-recent death).

McCourt's response to such criticism had been dismissive: "I can't get concerned with these things...I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that's what I experienced and what I felt."

St. Aubyn, on the other hand, states unequivocally in Parker's New Yorker article when asked about the truthfulness of the details of his novels as he wrote them as opposed to living them: "This whole journey is toward the truth, or toward authenticity, agency, and freedom. How could it possibly help to plant a lie in the middle of it? On the other hand, by telling the truth, I've distorted the message... The truth for me is the truth in the books, and the truth in the facts is a derelict ruin."

If you're a writer contemplating creating a memoir, then, should you rely more on facts - those "derelict ruins" of the past - or should you present the authentic experience even if it means you temper the facts with art?

When all is said and done, your memoir, straightforward or fictionalized, is your experience, filtered through whatever creative lens seems most appropriate to you. Does anyone else even have the right to question those creative choices save to express an opinion as to whether or not they work within the context of what you claim (or admit) you were attempting to do?
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