April 30, 2006

Truth or fiction--in memoir does it matter?

Just look at any bestseller list and you’ll see how much we love to read memoirs. We want to know, of course, what happened and why and what that says about the world. But reading about someone else also helps us know what is authentic about ourselves.

As Richard Hoffman describes it, writing memoir sounds like a recipe for making soup: it’s most nourishing and most flavorful if the ingredients simmer for a good long while. Hoffman’s own memoir, Half the House took 17 years of simmering.

“People think of memoir as recall,” says Hoffman, who is also a poet and author of the recent collection Without Paradise. “On the first level are the facts--who, what, when, where. It has to be real. But you need to make the connections and it takes a long time if you do that honestly. You carry the questions with you. There are ethical pitfalls: laziness; the temptation to hurry, to round off the edges. But the important thing is not letting go until the story coheres as narrative.

“Truth has historical value and ethical value, but it has no literary value.” Hoffman tells his students at Emerson College where he is writer in residence, “Don’t turn your life into work. Turn it into art.”

Art is what turns the raw story into something we want to read. Of course we can get the news from poems and find truth in fiction, but memoir speaks to us in a highly personal way. So why not, for art’s sake, take a few liberties? It is a question that causes hot debate, not to mention public disclaimers and serious career consequences. Does it really matter if a memoir is true? What if a million little fabrications would make it a better read?

First of all, according to Hoffman, the truth may not tell the whole story. “It’s not a matter of truth,” he says, “ it’s a matter of honesty.”

Think about it: there is a difference. Beyond the facts--yes, real, verifiable facts--needs to be an honesty about what those facts signify and how they came together to create a particular present. This is where the simmering comes in. Memory shifts, we change with new experiences, replaying echoes of old conversations until finally, over time, we come to understand the facts differently.

Says Hoffman, “That it is about your memory already puts a memoir at one remove from fact. We take in our experience and we make a story. What kind of story is it? You have a contract with the reader. You’re telling the reader what kind of story it is. A memoir has consequences. I wrote a memoir that sent a man to jail, where he died. What if I had made that up?”

When the edges of truth and fiction blur, we lose our ability to tell what is real from what is not. And that, Hoffman reminds me, gives our memories a public and even political dimension. Advertising can tell us how to remember events, and political spinmeisters’ shaping of reality can make us question the experience of our own eyes and ears. In the bubble of 24/7 news coverage and reality television we live in a kind of terrarium of sensational stories where quiet words can get lost. So the volume gets pumped up, the truth fattened with attention-getting details. Who cares? We should. Those fiction-enhanced “memoirs” may be good stories and we may enjoy reading them, but if we insist on not caring whether or not they are true, we risk forgetting how to see what is real.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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