Today I stumbled upon Steve Almond’s excellent thoughts on lying in memoir or what he says is becoming a genre of its own: the fake memoir. I love his definition of creative nonfiction: “It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.” The point is that they do need to have taken place.
Almond goes on to discuss some of the recent “fake memoirs,” the latest being Greg Mortenson’s best-selling Three Cups of Tea. Watch this 60 Minutes clip to see what lengths CBS went to in order to disprove the veracity of passages in Mortenson’s memoirs Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools.
Almond points out something else about lying in memoir: “In all of these memoirs, the fake stuff is utterly, almost comically, cliché. It always involves lurid violence, which the protagonist valiantly withstands or transcends.”
This reminded me of how some time ago a fellow writer in a writing class I was taking submitted an essay about how, as an adult, she ran into the former cheerleader who’d bullied her high school. They bumped into each other in their home town, in a card shop. The narrator was back in town visiting her parents. Both narrator and former cheerleader were in their early thirties, and the narrator was shocked to find the cheerleader had morphed into a somewhat disheveled and overweight thirty-something. She ended the story by telling us readers how she had told off this former cheerleader in the midst of that card shop, and had finally released all that pent-up anger from those years of being bullied in high school.
Each one of us readers commented on that ending. Something wasn’t quite working there. Well, the writer later confessed that she had made that up, that in fact the encounter had been uneventful except for the typical “Hi, how are you? What are you up to?” exchange, and that she had actually left feeling sorry for her former tormenter. Now that change in feelings would have been the real story! Instead the writer had tacked on that wished-for ending, and all of us readers had felt that something was just not right with that. It didn’t ring true for that narrator and that situation. It was cliché.
So: Don’t do that. You know when you’re making stuff up. That’s fine in writing, but as Steve Almond points out, that’s fiction. If you’re aspiring to write memoir, to tell it how it was, then don’t give in to that urge we all have of aggrandizing ourselves.