The Free Memoir: A License to ThrillPosted: March 13, 2015
Principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each
particular thing ask, “What is it in itself? What is its essence?”
—The Silence of the Lambs
Vivian Gornick says that memoir is “a genre still in need of an informed readership.” I agree.
A first step to better reading would be recognition of the different types of memoir, which have proliferated in the last three decades. Most of these types have been labeled plain memoir, a term that has resisted customizing. We have made do with one heading—as if shoes were simply shoes, instead of slippers, flats, oxfords, sandals, high heels, boots.
Stuart Dybek has said, “I, personally, could care less what anybody calls anything. I just care about the character of the piece.” I wish I could say labels don’t matter, but not everyone is as clear-sighted as Dybek. Some readers need help. What you call a narrative can prime them with the right assumptions and tamp down the wrong ones, preventing certain irritations and disappointments.
In reading a memoir we need to ask, What kind of shoe am I slipping onto my feet?
One type of life story is the free memoir, a form of nonfiction that, in presenting the past, deviates from factual and literal accuracy. This play of truth distinguishes the free memoir from the memoir per se, the word “free” meaning what it does in free translation, that is, “not literal or exact.”
Writers have on occasion been called to account because the nature of the free memoir isn’t understood. Sometimes readers apply the wrong convention, truthfulness, and free memoirs are lambasted as deceptive. Even writers themselves sometimes fail to see what sort of thing they have written. I suspect that James Frey got into trouble over A Million Little Pieces because he didn’t grasp just what kind of narrative he had composed.
Well, maybe I’m projecting my personal doubts onto Frey, who is certainly much more crafty than I. My own book Girl Rearing is a free memoir. Before the book’s publication, I had discussions with the publisher about giving readers a heads-up. I wanted to hint at the nature of the book in the subtitle, and suggested A Memoir of Girlhood Gone Astray. That would have left ambiguous whether it was the girlhood or the memoir that had gone adrift. (The publisher was not impressed by my idea.) Doing it all over again, I would just title the book Girl Rearing: A Free Memoir.
The nature of the free memoir’s infidelity to fact is clarified if we think of movies that are “based on a true story” (BOATS movies—there’s another useful term), among which the biopic is closest to the free memoir.
Moviegoers don’t worry just because biopics stretch the truth. Most audiences are untroubled by a tightening of the subject’s life and a heightening of its drama, the invention of scenes and characters. Audiences expect as much. They want as much. They don’t care if Ray portrays the true Ray Charles so long as he’s a blind black singer-pianist and the movie tells a good story.
In other words, with creative works like these, the accuracy of the facts is not a criterion of evaluation.
This doesn’t mean BOATS movies are never panned for inaccuracies. But such accusations often emerge from the motivations of the viewer. Argo, which portrays American diplomats’ escape from Iran after the Iranian Revolution, is a perfect example. The film critic for Maclean’s, a magazine out of Canada, complained that the movie minimized the role Canada played in the diplomats’ escape.
The film’s director, Ben Affleck, who understood the essence of the particular thing he had made, responded, “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth.” Making use of its poetic license, the movie invented a thrilling effort by the Iranians to catch the escaping diplomats’ plane as it taxied down the runway for takeoff.
In that same spirit, the spirit of the free memoir, my own story in Girl Rearing begins, “I was born in an alley.” I did not write, “I felt like I had been born in an alley,” which would have been more factual, but less satisfying, the impact of the sentence diminished by the qualification. I was not born in an alley, but that’s what the story of my birth felt like. Nothing better captured the truth of my situation in my family. The alley, its poetics of space, was where my story began.