By April D. Boland
Can a memoir contain the absolute truth about a person's life? James Frey certainly got many people asking this question last year through his whole "I embellished my story, I'm a writer, that's what I do, though I marketed it as non-fiction" fiasco.
I love creative nonfiction, which blurs the line between truth and reality, and consequently, I read a lot of memoirs. Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. These are just some of the people I have gotten to know through their writings about themselves and their lives. But how much can I trust to be true when it is, after all, autobiographical?
I have started and stopped and started and stopped while writing my own autobiography, and I run up against the same difficulties that every writer does: Do I really want to portray [this character] in this way? Do I really want to portray myself in this way? It is really hard to be completely impartial when you write of yourself and the ones you love, but even the writers who have it down can run into other problems. For example, just because the writer perceived an event as happening in such a way does not mean it happened that way at all. Perception colors everything we view and experience, like 3D glasses or a pair of shades. Can we really trust the author of the memoir? Do memoirs even belong in the nonfiction section?
The memoir is an interesting genre, and works within it are perhaps only true as examples of what authors experienced and how they felt about their experiences. For me, that is more interesting that what actually happened, otherwise I would spend all my time reading history books and not memoirs. I love that space in between the textbook and the novel - it's a beautiful space in which truth is fluid and malleable and fun. We should probably just take it for what it is rather than push it to one end of the spectrum or the other.