Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Phoney

And for the Pixies

There's an interesting debate going on over at Pimp My Novel about how factual memoirs should be. This is an old problem, fiction in memoir, that keeps resurfacing. The latest kerfuffle revolves around Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson. The WSJ has a piece here with specific allegations against him, but they are basically of two counts: Greg Mortenson made up parts of the story in his memoir and he misappropriated funds due to his charity.

Obviously the misappropriated funds is black and white - it's just wrong, no question.

But making up stories is a harder thing to prove, to qualify.

I met a mom at a PTA event recently and she told me she was a writer too, but that she wrote non-fiction. We got to talking about writing groups and decided to start one up together.

OKAY. We actually met at a PTO event, but I changed it to PTA because I thought that was something more people would understand (Parent Teacher Association/Organization, for the un-kid initiated) And she actually told me she was a teacher at a community college, then told me she wanted to try and write non-fiction someday. I tightened that bit up, made it less boring. Also, can 'recently' be 'over a year ago'?
Finally, we did talk writing groups, I had already started one, and she said 'no thanks' to joining mine.

See? Even in this no-account blog, I'm embellishing, adding, editing to make things seem better than they are. I do it all the time when I'm talking to people, when I'm pretending to listen to family tell stories I've heard a gajillion times before. I'm dissembling. LYING.

Where is the line of truthiness? Where is the art (short for artifice) in the memoir? What's an acceptable lie, one that doesn't hurt someone? What's unacceptable? One that makes the author seem more heroic, admirable, marketable than she really is? Is it intent that matters?

This is a subject that fascinates me because I feel like I'm a pretty good liar (as I've mentioned before). I try to lie for good, not evil by being a writer, but I would never write non-fiction, I couldn't trust myself. And, despite being a liar, I have an adverse, visceral reaction to people like James Frey. If you're going to be a liar, for chrissakes be honest about it.

What do you think about fiction in memoir? How stringent should the standard for factuality be? What is a lie too far?


  1. Interesting post. In the example you give about the PTA i would say it all feels like minor embellishments that I would have no problem with, apart from the ending. We started a group together vs I already ahd a group and she said no thanks to joining, is almost the opposite of each other, leading to completely different possibilities and I think that's the point where it goes beyond embellishment.

    Moody Writing

  2. I think with memoirs they should just be as factual as possible. I have read a few and put them down quickly after reading embellishments, things I knew were just wrong or added for "flare".

  3. Mooderino: I agree, but it's a slippery slope and any lie can accumulate.

  4. I think embellishment for the sake of better storytelling occurs in all memoirs. My life is so boring, I'd be forced to make stuff up big time!
    Hope you are enjoying the Challenge.

  5. hey Alex - thanks for stopping by - am absolutely LOVING the challenge - kudos to you guys for orchestrating it. I was just thinking that I've 'met' so many amazing people and read such interesting blogs thanks to your challenge. And the tyranny (I say that with love) of the alphabet has kept me to a pretty tight blogging schedule.

    Thanks again!

  6. I think that if you're going to say something is true (which you are by default when writing a memoir) then it should be entirely true. Anything else would be deceiving your readers. And if you feel the need to embellish your life because otherwise the memoir would be boring, then you really shouldn't be writing a memoir. Just write straight fiction. It's that simple.

  7. Hey Sarah
    I think you have a good point - why write a memoir if you need to embellish the truth? But David Sedaris has been called out for this (tweaking things to make them funnier, not telling untruths) and you'll find lots of memoirs that re-arrange timelines, or compress events for the sake of storytelling, is that form of embellishing, because it makes the story 'look' better? Then there's the fact that memoir is based on (faulty) memory - who's memory isn't faulty? Can you embellish without knowing you are doing it? I'm just putting it out there for comment, I will forever stick to fiction unless something impossibly exciting happens to me!

  8. Going back a ways, but I believe it was Schopenhauer (sp?) who wrote that once something happens, it's already in the past. It's essentially fiction. Your thoughts past and present dictate how you view what has happened. I think it's the essential truth that has to be there. Now what the essential truth is? Damned if I know.

  9. we do of course all of us colour our memories. With our experinces before an event and with the years after the event. 'Truth' does not exsist as a concrete article. Time and time again it has also been proved that memory of a happening is so haphazard that it seems like fantasy. How can two people see events so differently?!

    Lying is a minefield of definitions - and if memory is so mobile and truth so fragile where does that leave lying?

  10. @Alberta - thanks for visiting. I tend to agree that the issue is not black and white at all and that truth is extremely subjective. I guess that's what I find so fascinating with writing. I will stick to fiction for that reason! Somewhere between integrity and lying is, I guess, creativity.

  11. I think part of this can be solved by understanding, especially in the case of people like David Sedaris, there is a difference between memoir and narrative essay. In both cases the writer is speaking from a personal perspective and relating an anecdote from life but the intent in the essay is to illustrate a point, idea or theme. Everything in the essay contributes to the theme.
    It isn't a matter of truth or falsehood, it is a matter of showing how a personal experience has lead to an understanding of something important in life. The intent is not to deceive but to illustrate.
    Rather than getting hung up on whether you are cheating by changing a small detail here or there, take a step back and ask yourself if you are trying to hide something or bring out the more important idea or theme in your narrative.
    That's my attitude, anyway. If Greg Mortenson has constructed a false memoir with the intent purely of making money off being someone he is not, then it is questionable ethically. If he has made no pretence but has written this memoir as way of illustrating some points about that life, then it is no different than anything by Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey or Hunter S. Thompson.

    Sudden Alarm of Donkeys (


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...