A memoirist defends her words

A response to critics who object to the use of composite characters in my writing.

Topics: Memoirs, Books,

A memoirist defends her words

Once, in Texas, at an association of engineers, I gave a reading from my memoir “Fierce Attachments.” No sooner had I finished speaking than a woman in the audience raised her hand to ask a question: “If I come to New York, can I take a walk with your Mama?” When the laughter died down I told her that, actually, she wouldn’t want to take a walk with my mother, it was the woman in the book she wanted to walk with. They were not exactly the same.

Shortly afterwards, I attended a dinner party in New York where, an hour into the evening, one of the guests (a stranger to me) blurted out in a voice filled with disappointment, “Why, you’re nothing like the woman who wrote ‘Fierce Attachments’!” At the end of the evening she cocked her head at me, and said, “Well, you’re something like her.” I understood perfectly. She had come expecting to have dinner with the narrator of the book, not with me; again, not exactly the same.

On both occasions, what was desired was the presence of two people who existed only between the pages of a book. The models for those people — me and my mother — were, in the flesh, a rough draft. On the page, we were a pair of satisfactory principals in a tale of psychological embroilment that had as its protagonist neither me nor my mother, but, rather, our “fierce attachment.” It was to this tale that the book had been devoted, and to which all had been subordinated — including me and Mama.

At the heart of the embroilment lay a single insight: that I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother. This was my bit of wisdom, the story I wanted badly to trace out. The context in which the book is set — our life in the Bronx in the 1950s, alternating with walks taken in Manhattan in the 1980s — that was the situation; the story was the flash of insight. If the book has any strength at all, it is because I remained scrupulously faithful to that story.

A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story — to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters. As V.S. Pritchett said of the genre, “It’s all in the art, you get no credit for living.”

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Some of the greatest memoirs written, if held to the standard of literal accuracy that is required in other kinds of nonfiction writing, would never pass the test. When Thomas de Quincey wrote “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” he led his readers to believe that his addiction was behind him; not true; he was taking opium when he wrote the book, and continued to take it for next 30 years. To this day, there are readers who cry “Liar!” at one of the most profound descriptions ever given of addiction. Edmund Gosse’s “Father and Son,” written when Gosse was 57 years old, recounts conversations that purportedly took place when he was 8 years old. The book, upon publication, was instantly recognized as a masterpiece, but people who had known the Gosses protested that Edmund made those conversations up — which, of course, he did. George Orwell’s brilliant short memoir of how he experienced his schooldays, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” was denounced by people who had been his classmates: filled with “inaccuracies,” they insisted. On and on it goes, until one realizes there is a vast misunderstanding abroad about how to read a memoir.

To state the case briefly: memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.

Two weeks ago I spoke about memoir writing at Goucher College, before a group of writing program students and their teachers. It was my intention, during this talk, to define the genre as I understand it, practice it, and teach it. I spoke for an hour out of a book on the subject that I wrote a year ago (“The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative”), then I read from “Fierce Attachments.” I was at pains during this talk to make a definite distinction between what the writer of personal narrative does, and what the writer of biography, newspaper writing, or literary journalism does. I said many of the things I am saying here.

At a question and answer period afterwards, I took many questions that had more to do with the literal actuality of the events behind my story than with the writing itself. In the course of responding to these questions, I mentioned that on a few occasions in the book I had made a composite out of the elements of two or more incidents — none of which had been fabricated — for the purpose of moving the narrative forward. (I might also have added that I played loose with time, for the very same reasons, relating incidents that were chronologically out of order, for the sake of narrative development.) I had said these things times without number, at other talks and readings, and in nearly every class I ever taught. It never occurred to me that such practices would not be seen as entirely within the province of the memoirist. To my amazement, these words were taken as a “confession” on my part, and reported as such by a Goucher student in Salon. Based solely on her article, a Washington book critic was subsequently allowed to denounce me on NPR’s “Fresh Air” as “the latest culprit … in a series of similar revelations,” comparing me with those other “liars,” Binjamin Wilkomirski, Doris Goodwin and Jayson Blair.

The giveaway here is this trio of names. I, a memoirist who composed (composed, mind you, not invented) a narrative drawn entirely from the materials of my own experience, am being compared to a psychopath who invented a memoir of testament out of whole cloth; a historian who is accused of incorporating other people’s work into her own without attribution; and a dishonest newspaper reporter who made up interviews in the New York Times. It seems to me that these analogies are proof, if proof be needed, that memoir writing is a genre still in need of an informed readership.

Vivan Gornick is a writer who lives in New York. Her most recent book of essays, "The End of the Novel of Love," is published by Beacon Press.

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