When I got a postcard two weeks ago announcing the paperback edition of John Falk’s Hello to All That as being “in the tradition of A Million Little Pieces,” I chuckled to myself: Hell of a time for that comparison to be making the rounds. But then I got to thinking that Falk, who’d written about his battle with chronic depression and his experiences as a Sarajevo war correspondent, probably had something to say about the art of telling the truth about your life. So I asked, and I received, and I pass along to you…
You could be drunk, in a writing workshop, or maybe just sitting on the can. The point is that great insight, that magical inspiration can hit you just about anywhere. Maybe you can’t put it into words just yet but you suddenly know, can feel in your gut actually, that somewhere in your past there unfolded a series of events that meant something, really meant something. They all fit together. You then think of all the people you knew, all the crazy, colorful scenes in your life. There is a story there, a great story. Man, this can be good, you think. You run it by your friends and family. They all agree: You really should take a crack at writing a memoir.
For most people it’s about here, or maybe after two or three trips to Starbucks with your laptop, that the whole enterprise unravels. Why? Because you just can’t capture on paper that initial inspiration. The words fall short. The details overwhelm. Your life wasn’t as coherent as it seemed and what was an inspiration quickly becomes drudgery. It’s here that the more sensible among us order that final mochachino and split back to living their life instead of writing about it.
For the rest, you dive deeper. Keep writing. Month after month. Year after year. You chase that rabbit, that initial inspiration, word after damn word. As you learn more you start thinking in character arcs, acts, conflicts and resolutions. It’s a necessary step, of course, the only way to impose that timeless story structure on what had been until now a rambling retelling of your life.
This is where the process turns treacherous in that life doesn’t unfold so neatly. There never is or will be a perfect beginning, middle and end to anyone’s life, whether that be the narrative they write or even tell themselves. Life comes with a lot of loose ends. If you’re honest, you let the facts drive the story, even if it seems to be taking one off course. The unforgivable sin is to let that luscious rabbit of inspiration begin dictating the facts so that you invent events and characters out of whole cloth to serve the story, and not vice versa. This is where writers begin to speak of “the essence of the truth” and other bullshit.
Granted memoirs are not official history. They are not even official biographies because if a fact or event isn’t relevant to the story structure, it doesn’t belong in a memoir. It is these omissions and the imposition of a literary style that makes memoirs entertaining reading but imperfect records. Who the hell can remember dialogue verbatim from when they were five? However, at the end of the day, if you’re cooking the facts, you’re undermining your story. If you’re not aiming for the truth, you’re undermining the initial reason you first put pen to paper, that initial inspiration that you had something important, compelling to say.
James Frey being roasted on a spit by Oprah was great tube. He fabricated whole sections of his history for “dramatic effect.” It was brutal to watch. To be fair, I think when he set out to write his memoir he probably viewed himself as the James Frey in A Million Little Pieces: hard, raw, out of control, a lone rebel, clawing his way back out of hell. That was his initial inspiration, the thing that got him to put pen to paper. In the writing of his memoir, though, he probably realized he wasn’t even close to being that guy and was instead what he feared to be all along: a drunk, spoiled, meek frat boy. So he changed the facts to fit the story he wanted to tell and not the story that was. And now everyone knows not that he just made up large chunks of his story but that he really is no more than just another recovering addict. I bet that’s what hurts most of all.
30 January 2006 | guest authors |