When is it Okay to "Lie"?

If you fictionalize your memoir, here’s a disclaimer.

Posted May 05, 2017

Public domain / Pixabay
Source: Public domain / Pixabay

  James Frey wouldn’t have been humiliated on the Oprah Show and caused such a brouhaha about not telling the truth, if only he had printed a disclaimer that his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, was fictionalized. Now there’s a debate about whether to stick to the facts when writing memoir or whether it’s acceptable to merge and reorder events and rename characters for the sake of the story and the characters’ privacy.

At the San Miguel Writers Conference in February, a participant asked a panel of memoir writers whether he should alter facts. He told them he’d been stressed out as a new teacher and one day discovered he’d worn two different shoes to work. “For the sake of the story, it would be better to say it happened on the first day,” he said.

“Not true,” replied the panel. They thought it was equally impactful to wear two shoes from different pairs on a later date.

But what about something like Thanksgiving dinner that takes place every year? Basically the same food, same players, same conversation. If you cull the best lines of dialogue, you will likely end up with a more interesting piece. If you portray the characters’ salient features, combined from the various dinners, you may communicate better who they are. If you compress events, your piece may have pace that would be lacking at the actual dinners.

Life doesn’t usually present perfect plotlines. In fact, if we just write events as they actually happened, they may be downright boring. So, creative non-fiction employs “creative” techniquess.

In her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, author-chef Gabrielle Hamilton avoided Frey’s problem by writing a note at the end of the book that tells us she changed some names and even made some up when she couldn’t remember them. She airbrushed a few people out of scenes, compressed, contracted and rearranged time. She combined recurring, similar events into one for “clarity, drive, and momentum.” Apart from those liberties, the book was “a true account of my experiences as I remember them.”

On the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff pointed out that her guest, David Maraniss, editor and Pulitzer winner at the Washington Post, had found factual discrepancies in Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama. But the book wasn’t fiction, Maraniss argued. It was literature, defined as a work of “lasting artistic merit” by the Oxford dictionary. “There’s a difference between serious, rigorous factual biography and a memoir,” he said. Obama distorted some characters, compressed some, and created composites in order to make different points about his perspective on race. Rather than judging the book as biographical history, Maraniss called it a “fascinating look inside of [Obama’s] head” which accurately reflected how he dealt with issues of race.

I thought I would come down on the side of compression and creativity, but when I wrote the memoir about me and my mother, the truth was better than fiction. Writing the facts and dialogue as they happened was more telling than compressing events or changing characters. You couldn’t make this up!

It’s for each writer to conclude how much leeway to take. But don't forgot the disclaimer!

Prompt: Telling the truth.

Copyright © 2017 by Laura Deutsch