What Drives Some Memoirists from Truth to Fiction?

I remain obsessed with “truthiness” in memoirs. I know I’m not alone; my March post on the subject generated 187 comments. I believe I have arrived at three key principles for writing a memoir that is worth reading without truthiness. It is as follows:

1. Believe in your story.

2. Rely on your writing to maximize its impact rather than exaggeration.

3. Write not out of revenge but out of love.

What is becoming clear to me is that the memoirist’s level of belief in the value of his own story is a significant factor in the degree to which the book migrates from fact to fiction. Let’s put it in terms of a formula:

The amount of truthiness in your memoir correlates directly with your own insecurity as to the worth of your story.

Because my memoir is architected on a 2010 road trip in which I have hundreds of hours of video and audio footage as well as numerous photographs, when I'm writing the scene in which I'm walking along the falls of Sioux Falls I can go back and look at pictures like this. There often are primary sources we can use from our childhood as well, including photos, diaries, and interviews with loved ones.

Because my memoir is architected on a 2010 road trip in which I have hundreds of hours of video and audio footage as well as numerous photographs, when I’m writing the scene in which I’m walking along the falls of Sioux Falls I can go back and look at pictures like this. There often are primary sources we can use from our childhood as well, including photos, diaries, and interviews with loved ones.

Thanks to the power of Oprah’s ability to publicly shame, we often hear cited the example of James Frey and his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. A lot of that book, it turns out, was pure fiction. He didn’t spend months incarcerated; he spent a few hours at an Ohio police headquarters waiting for a friend to post a $733 bond. While his stories of his time in prison are fabrications, one could argue that they are in fact extreme exaggerations.

I maintain that is when your memoir demonstrates truthiness: you take an incident that had dramatic value to you, and goose it up until you’re convinced it has dramatic value for readers.

Steve Almond made this point two years ago on The Rumpus by citing, among others, Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson: “It wasn’t enough for Mortenson that he tried and failed to climb a tall mountain, then met some villagers and decided to help build some schools for the local children. He had to gin up the truth.”

In the last month I’ve read two memoirs with an eye out for truthiness, David Sedaris’ Naked and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. Both authors have been publicly scrutinized for truthiness in their memoir writing, and both are considered humorists. That latter point is important, because we allow a humorist a certain amount of dramatic license. When a stand-up comedian relays a hilarious fight between him and his girlfriend, we don’t stop and say “Wait a minute. Is it really true that she said that?”

Sedaris has defended the truthiness of his writing by saying he looks over what he writes, and if it is 97% true then he’s good with it. That’s an attempt to quantify something that is unquantifiable, of course. And when I read the essays in Naked I could begin to guess where some of the 3% came from.

Let’s talk about dialogue. We generally don’t have recordings of the conversations of our youth; Creative Nonfiction founder Lee Gutkind says that as a result, readers should be forgiving of dialogue used in CNF. Sedaris’ characters–mother, father, grandmother–speak in ways that set up the punchline perfectly. It’s masterful humor writing, and I found myself tolerant of Sedaris’ creative reconstructions. I will say that my favorite essay, however, was the one in which the book’s title is derived, about his week alone at a nudist colony. What spoke to me about that essay? Most of the humor did not involve him mocking loved ones; he directed the bright light at himself.

I am performing final revisions on my memoir right now, and I repeatedly ask myself two things: 1) Am I depicting these people and events as truthfully as I can? and 2) Am I applying the toughest scrutiny to myself? My research into the memoir genre tells me that following those two tenets will get me as close as I can to the kind of truth I value as a journalist.

I don’t believe Augusten Burroughs followed either of those tenets when writing Running with Scissors. His memoir had already become a bestseller and was optioned for a movie before questions began to be raised about it, in part because he didn’t give the people he wrote about in the memoir advance notice. He describes a tortured childhood in which his alcoholic father leaves him and his neurotic poet mother transfers legal guardianship of him to her highly unorthodox therapist. Like Sedaris’ book, there are moments in Burroughs’ book that are darkly funny, although I will note that Sedaris is a far better writer. Why does that matter?

Sedaris is able to wring humor out of a moment through masterful selection and placement of words, a skill perfected by Mark Twain. Burroughs’ prose often reads like the source he says the book is derived from, his journals from his childhood. Despite the fact that his mother is a poet, there are few poetic turns of phrase in Running with Scissors; Burroughs scores laughs largely through the highly outrageous moments the narrator finds himself in.

And that is a problem. Mortenson did climb mountains and did found schools for the poor, but he felt that wasn’t enough. Burroughs did spend some time living with a psychiatrist who was later disbarred and did have a mother who experienced psychotic episodes, but it would seem he felt that wasn’t enough. So he went further. Burroughs was sued by the late psychiatrist’s family, who essentially outed themselves in the process (Burroughs changed their names in the book). The case was settled, so we don’t know what in fact was proven true and what wasn’t, but Burroughs did agree to change the word “memoir” in the author’s note of future editions to “book.”

This photo looking at Portland, Oregon, from Vancouver, Washington, tells me it was overcast on the day I was there on my cross-country road trip. On that I feel I can trust my memory, however; isn't it always overcast in the Pacific Northwest?

This photo looking at Portland, Oregon, from Vancouver, Washington, tells me it was overcast on the day I was there on my cross-country road trip. On that I feel I can trust my memory, however; isn’t it always overcast in the Pacific Northwest?

The fabrications that Burroughs was accused of are ones of exaggeration and omission. Take the transfer of Burroughs from mother to therapist. The therapist’s family maintains the legal process occurred at a later age than Burroughs claims, and was done so that Augusten (then called Chris) could attend a different school district. A kitchen roof was removed and remodeled, but it wasn’t destroyed by Augusten and one of the doctor’s daughters, but rather removed by a handyman staying with the family. There was no electroshock machine with which the kids played; it was a vacuum cleaner.

After finishing Running with Scissors, I found myself wondering what the book would have been like had the author managed to resist exaggeration. I also found myself wishing the author had waited another decade or so to write the book. It is clear upon reading it that Burroughs’ wounds were still fresh at the time he wrote it. Even the character for whom he professes the greatest affection–the psychiatrist’s daughter “Natalie”–is constantly derided for her appearance, her manner of speaking, and her intelligence. The book is, in a way, one ruthless attack after another. The humor of his book comes purely at the expense of others; he most definitely does not shine the brightest light on himself.

That is forgivable in some sense, in that the narrator is only seventeen at the end of the book. We can’t blame a child for his victimhood. But the author was an adult when he wrote the book. It appears Burroughs chose to exaggerate, while also choosing not to attempt to understand and convey to readers the complex motivations behind the actions of the people he depicts. And that is unfortunate. Running with Scissors was widely acclaimed, but it could have been so much more, while including so much less.

I am finding that in writing memoir, it can be tempting to, say, dredge up a fight that you lost and now wage it to win, with the other party not invited to participate. In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser cites Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and other great memoirs by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Pete Hamill (A Drinking Life) and Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) as memoir at their best. Why?

“[B]ecause they were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the writers are as honest about their own young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people, prisoners of our own destructiveness, and we have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives.”

We all have moments of victimhood in our lives, but I don’t wish to portray myself as one. And I am making an effort to write my book with love. But the question remains: Is my story interesting enough to be told? I ask myself that every day, and every day a part of me says no. One of the MFA instructors I worked with on this book, Sue William Silverman, has written two amazing memoirs, one about a childhood as a sexual abuse victim and another as an adult suffering from sex addiction. The prose she worked on with me contains no such heart-rending drama. But she believed in my story and in my prose, and she reminded me that everyone’s story is, by definition, unique. If you invite the reader in and tell the story well, they’ll want to join you.

So I return to that list of how to avoid truthiness in your memoir:

1. Believe in your story.

2. Rely on your writing to maximize its impact rather than exaggeration.

3. Write not out of revenge but out of love.

What would you add to that list?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

21 Responses to “What Drives Some Memoirists from Truth to Fiction?”

  1. Dear Patrick,

    This is one of the best essays I’ve read on “truthiness” (loveit!) in memoir. You struck so many chords, I felt like I was listening to a symphony.:-) I can relate because I ,too, am in the final editing stages of my first memoir. The question I keep going back to is why am I writing this story? So ,the only thing I would add to your list is be able to answer that question. When we are connected to our purpose for writing, we can believe in our story. “Writing with love” and forgiveness vs intention to disparage, showing the lessons learned from the pain and avoiding victimhood all resonate.

    I also appreciate your assessment of Augusten Burrough’s memoir. It seemed to be driven by sensationalism and I found myself cringing through the read. Needless to say, I did not find it to be an enjoyable experience. I like your distinction between exaggeration and writing to maximize impact. It seems to me, most readers are looking for universal stories that are relatable and believable and that show growth and redemption.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking and insightful post. You have captured the essence of memoir writing and I’ll be sharing this all over.

    Best wishes on finishing your memoir. I’m looking forward to reading it!,

    Kathy Pooler

    • I’ve never had my work compared to a symphony before! I need my breathing to return to normal before continuing…🙂

      Why am I writing this story? That’s a great addition, and, frankly, a great question to ask with any piece of writing, in particular CNF. And it connects well with my existing questions, as you note.

      I like your point about growth and redemption. I didn’t really address that in my Running with Scissors analysis, but that was definitely missing. My previous post shows the four narrative lines of my memoir; all deal with issues of my past and present, but all resolve at the end with me having new insight and wisdom that I will be carrying forward. Burroughs ends his book on the verge of adulthood clearly scarred, but the voice of experience of the author doesn’t really tell us what the narrator has learned, other than perhaps that people can’t be trusted. It ties back to when he wrote the book; perhaps he didn’t have enough distance yet to know what he had learned.

      Best wishes on your memoir as well, Kathy, and I’ll definitely want to read it!

  2. You have provided a missing piece here, Patrick. People exaggerate, misrepresent and lie in their memoir because they don’t think the truth is enough. Brilliant.

    Like Sue William Silverman, I believe everyone’s story is worth telling, but it does take some pondering and experimentation to find the approach to that story that will make it meaningful and enjoyable for others. Relying on truthiness can be much easier than the critical and creative thinking required to present the story as it really happened.

    I also love your point about focusing your scrutiny as much on yourself as on others. This is related to #3. Writers indulge in truthiness not just for revenge but also to protect their own egos. I might reword #3 to be more broad. Perhaps it could be, “Write with love and compassion for human imperfection, your own and that of the other people in your story.” Or something like that.🙂

    A point I like to make on this topic is that, deep down, the writer knows whether or not what they’ve written is honest. It’s all in the intention, and if the writer pays attention to any feelings of guilty discomfort as they read their own writing, they’ll probably be able to spot the parts where they may need to revise to eliminate truthiness.

    Can’t wait to read your book!

    • Hi Sue,

      I’m glad you introduce the subject of “ego.” We default in life to showing our best side, and it’s easy to do in CNF as well. We want to be liked. I have found during this process that my first take of a scene or reflection has me looking pretty good. In revision I’ve forced myself to tell the whole story, warts and all. I just this morning pressed deeper in revealing a not-very-good moment for me during revision. I will say that it is becoming easier to do this. I tell myself readers want a memoirist to be honest, and would rather forgive flaws and mistakes revealed than read a press release that only shows the good. Another of my MFA advisors, memoirist Larry Sutin, said if you want to write so people will like you, write letters to family members telling them how much you love them. If you want to write honestly for publication, don’t worry if you’re liked or not.

      And yes, I think we all know if we’re being honest on some level. I read a few articles and interviews on Burroughs. There are times where he seemed a bit defensive about a certain point in the book. I suspect those were moments where he knew he had exaggerated. We should probably look at each scene and imagine we’re on Oprah’s couch, being asked about it. Would we become defensive? Then maybe it’s time for another revision.

      Patrick

  3. Really interesting stuff here, Patrick! And I never apply a strict “truth” standard to Sedaris and am surprised he puts the figure at 97%!

    • That seemed a bit high to me, but again, it’s applying numbers to something unquantifiable. Glad you liked the post, and that we’re on the same page as Sedaris.

  4. You make powerful points Patrick. I agree with all, including the edit suggested by Sue Mitchell. Here’s how I’m handling truth:

    Even before my husband read a component story in my soon-to-be-released mini-memoir and considered having me tested for dementia, I wrote a disclaimer in the first chapter along these lines: “These stories are true in the sense that all memoir is fiction because no two people experience shared experiences the same way to begin with, and we create our interpretations. Then neuroplasticity kicks in and memory morphs over time. So these stories are consistent with my sense of how things happened, which is what made me who I am.”

    Now maybe I’ll have my hubby checked for dementia since he’s older than I am and his memory is obviously shot! But then after fifty years of shared experiences, the overlap between what we remember is perhaps as high as 20%. So the fact that he remembers it at all is significant.

    • Sharon, thank you for bringing in a discussion of memory, in such an honest and guiltily humorous manner. We are changing our recollection of something the moment it happens. One thing I’ve already done is interview someone in the book to see if her memory coincided with mine. She pointed out two places where she disagreed. One was a simple error on my part (I remembered a painting wrong, easily fact-checked) and the other was a sequence-of-events matter. I reflected on it and decided she was right, in part because her order of events made more sense than mine (it cannot be independently fact-checked).

      I find myself writing my author’s note in my head; I will do so on paper once my revision is done. I’ll be pointing out that much of the book is based on hundreds of hours of video and audio interviews as well as photos and notes. But that still doesn’t capture my entire life experience, so beyond that–what I did, thought, said–is what I believe to be true.

      I like how you say it “is what made me who I am.” I wish I could remember the author right now, but I heard a story about a man who wrote a memoir and had a scene about the strong impression a full moon made on him one night. The publisher’s fact-checker looked up the lunar charts and said it wasn’t full that night. He fought back, saying in his mind it was most definitely full, and it’s a memory he’s carried with him throughout his life. But the chart didn’t lie. So he rewrote it to say that while he has since learned it wasn’t full, in his mind it was, and that’s what matters to him.

  5. So glad I’ve found your blog, via a post on FB! Well written and very thought-provoking

  6. Extremely well-written and lots to think about now.

    My sister passed away when we were little and I have always been pulled from somewhere within me to write about it. However, when writing about one’s self, one’s own life and experiences, (a memoir), who is to say if it will ultimately be “enough” or even interesting enough to move the reader to turn the page time after time to the end? How do we even know if anyone out there cares about our subject to devote hours curled up on a couch with a blanket or hours sunk down in the sand in a folding chair at the beach wiggling their toes in the warm sand as they enter our life and then stay for awhile? How do we know it’s good enough to even bother?

    And, yes, it is usually overcast here in the Pacific Northwest but for a few glorious, consistant weeks of 85′ weather lately. Thanks for the shout out!! 🙂

    Keep up the good work. Kudos to you!

    • You ask some great questions here, questions anyone writing about themselves surely asks. I attended a lecture once where the author said it’s a trope that we should know our readers, but for him he writes for one reader: himself. In other words, he writes not to bore himself. Now that could be considered a low bar, but I think he meant that if what we write is truly interesting to us, that passion will convey onto the page and a reader other than us will catch it. That can be a useful tool in knowing what to include and what not to include. Of course in a literary memoir we can presume certain details are included because they advance a larger story, so even if a particular incident or anecdote doesn’t seem particularly compelling when we first read it, we may want to keep reading to learn why the author included it.

      I am not surprised you find yourself pulled to write about your sister’s passing. And I would argue that since very few of us out there have had an experience like that, we are immediately curious to read your story. Don’t we all want to spend time while reading as someone else? We have plenty of time in our lives to be ourselves.

  7. I’m so glad I found my way here via a post shared by Sue Mitchell.
    If your memoir is as well written, articulate and thought provoking as this piece, I’d bet it’s going to be terrific and I would love to read it.

    • I’m glad you found your way here as well! I greatly appreciate your feedback on my writing, and I certainly hope I’m bringing the same to my memoir. Thank you for the encouragement!

  8. As a fiction writer who occasionally writes nonfiction, this is a question I often grapple with, so thank you for exploring it so thoughtfully. To push on the topic from the other (fiction) side, I would as this: why, even in fiction, do readers put such a value on truth? I write historical fiction (and have written about this on my own blog) and so many readers expect absolute veracity in the history aspect, while accepting some degree of fiction in the fictional aspect. With a memoir, and with memory (as another comment notes) veracity can’t be certain. Is it enough for the writer to evoke the sense or the feeling? This is what Tim O’Brien advocates in his “The Things They Carried” and he has taken some heat for his position. But for me truth lies as much, or more, in the person who is doing the telling — who felt and wants to make you feel — as the person reading.

    • Alex, thank you for your perspective on this. It’s quite welcome, in part because just last month in my MFA graduation lecture I spoke on how to attempt to write scenes in historical biography writing, scenes that you didn’t see and occurred long before you were born. I tried to make the lecture useful to writers of historical fiction, and what I came to realize is that it’s hard to know where to draw the line between what part of the work is the “history aspect” and what part is the “fictional aspect.”

      If I’m not mistaken, The Things They Carried was identified as fiction, even though it’s known that the author lived a similar experience, so I would think the short stories in there would be viewed in a different light than if they were instead considered personal essays. Still, I’m sure many readers were left wondering what was “real” and what was not quite real.

  9. I am the same. Truth is the most beautiful of expressions.

  10. Even before you mentioned Sedaris and Burroughs … I was thinking, specifically, of both. I cut Sedaris much more slack than Burroughs because he admits openly to exaggeration and is clearly, first and foremost, a humorist. (Though the stories in which he reveals his own flaws — with sort of a poignant punch at the end — are my favorites … and seem to have increased over the years.)

    I completely agree about “Running With Scissors.” Shock value seemed to trump good writing. I think of, say, Mary Karr who wrote also about a troubled childhood (including her mother’s psychotic break) … but did so with such lyrical beauty, beauty that I believe emits from a deep place of love, forgiveness, self-exploration, and maturity. In fact, I believe she actually says that she finds her parents “innocent.”

    The Glass Castle (Jeanette Wall) may be another selection suitable for comparing/contrasting. Wall, in my recollection, emerges as the hero of her memoir (as does Burroughs) whereas Karr emerges (to my eye) as a co-survivor … sort of her family vs alcoholism/mental illness. (In some ways her family wins, in some ways they lose… together, in all of their imperfection.)

    Also, where Wall employs direct quotes in The Glass Castle (even via her recollections as a three-year-old), Karr writes about a memory/scene “coming into focus.” No direct quotes when she does this. As reader, I can feel the way her mind is working as she’s writing and remembering (almost as if I’m there writing/remembering with her). This, for me, lends her credibility. Even if her recalled image isn’t precise, I sense that she’s after as much truth as a memory can render.

    I think Sedaris’s self-deprecation lends to his appeal. Unlike Burroughs and Wall, he doesn’t emerge the hero, by and large, in his linked narratives.

    As you can see, this subject intrigues me and I love the way you’ve broken it down here. Been too busy to drop by but am glad I saw/read this!

    • Terri, so great to see you and to get your perspective. I know this touches on the kind of things you’re reflecting on in your own writing. I have read Mary Karr and agree with you but have not read Jeanette Wall. Should I add her to my reading list? I think you nail it with the co-survivor description of Karr.

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  1. I have a secret to tell you… | We Are All Flawed - August 15, 2013

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