Seven years ago, sometime after midnight, in a little attic room in Northampton, MA something tore me from sleep. I folded my knees into my chest, turned on my nightlight and reached for my notebook.
Like Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire who awoke in the middle of the night to transcribe his truth about personal relationships, I was filled with a sense of purpose, passion, and clarity.
I wasn't thinking about what might be marketable or interesting, I was simply following an artistic impulse to write.
By dawn, my notebook held the first of many stories that would chronicle my history of failed love relationships. Excited that my literary purge might lead me to the monogamous waters of romance I'd been seeking all my life, I promptly called my mom.
"Oh dear," she said. "Is it going to be 10,000 pages long?"
My heart sunk just a little. I laughed and called my agent.
"Send it," she said.
Mind you, I didn't fancy myself a historian or a scientist. I never assumed anyone would dissect my sequence of events and confuse them for actual history. My personal narrative was a straightforward attempt to supplement the notion of romance (or lack thereof) in the time of big hair and parachute pants, not define it.
And even though I changed the names of my entire cast of primary characters (except my own) throughout my book, I never thought it made my memoir any less truthful than if I had created it in a laboratory. It just made me a writer with a conscience.
Which is why I was confused when my agent called recently and asked me to squeeze a disclaimer between the table of contents and the dedication page.
"I'm just concerned that many of the events of your life sound too outrageous to be true," she said.
"They are," I said. "And they're still true."
I didn't really say that, but I thought it. I figured I'd save my explanation of how my aura had suffered some kind of social calibration defect* due to being raised in an Odditorium by a family full of artists for another time. No need to confuse her and push my publication date back even further. (*An explanation of this disorder will appear on my blog in the near future).
But I know why she needed the disclaimer.
Though it's been five years since the fallout between James Frey and Oprah Winfrey over his book "A Million Little Pieces," the bruise on the publishing world is still sensitive. Apparently, no one has forgotten that Frey's book failed the litmus test of being a completely factual memoir.
After Frey blamed his embellishments on his personal demons and his publisher (Random House) gave refunds to about 2,000 readers who felt duped, the idea of a personal truth as it pertains to storytelling mutated instantaneously.
From that point forward the literary placebo would require analysis from a device that could both quantify and qualify it. (See Flux Capacitor for more information). As a result, every budding memoirist in the world with a unique tale to tell would be required to wear a house arrest ankle bracelet and jump through a hoop.
For me though, the idea of the truth within a transcribed personal narrative remains more aligned with the Bohemian ideals unto which I was raised - freedom, beauty, and love than with fact or reality. At best, it's a subjective and active pursuit prone to the same pitfalls that plague most infants - falling down, getting lost, and putting things in your mouth that don't belong there. At it's worst it's fodder for witch hunts. In plainer terms, love and truth come from some higher place in the world like an iCloud, existing neither in the heart nor the head.
Frey's chronicle of his struggle with addiction gave me my first glimpse into my own father's alcoholism. It was this truth that gave my father and I common ground to stand on and ultimately repair our relationship. It didn't matter that the result was created by a literary placebo.
"Are you saying you want me to get signed releases from all my exes?" I said to my agent.
Before she even answered, I knew it would be a bad idea that would include lots of drama and the impossible task of adding additional chapters.
"That would be ideal," she said.
I was silent. There would be no releases, no extra chapters and no more drama and in this instance at least, no literary placebo.