So, What Exactly Are They Smoking in Eugene, Oregon?

March 26, 2008 § 10 Comments


Or, Why You Should Never, Ever Send Your Children to School in Oregon.

FROM AN EXCELLENT OPINION PIECE IN THE EUGENE REGISTER-GUARD:

While commentators elsewhere in the country were condemning [Peggy] Seltzer [and her fraudulent memoir, Love and Consequences,] for deceit and betrayal, the intellectuals of Eugene have been circling their academic wagons around her. So far, a professor of English and one of philosophy at the University of Oregon have put their prestige on the line with spirited public defenses of Seltzer’s moral right to lie. A teacher of memoir writing at Lane Community College has also been very sympathetic.

Linda S. Clare, the LCC memoir teacher, admits in a March 13 guest viewpoint that she herself advises her students to “embroider” their dull life stories with untruths.  [SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE, Dec. 2009]

Seltzer, she says, simply went too far. (Perhaps it should be noted here that Seltzer, who is white and was raised in middle class comfort, somehow passed herself off as a half-Native American, who was brought up by black foster parents in South Central Los Angeles where she ran drugs for the Bloods.)

“In my mind,” says Clare, “that doesn’t make the writing any less complex or beautiful. What I don’t know is what to call it.” While commentators elsewhere had no trouble in knowing what to call Seltzer’s book, Clare reluctantly concludes only that: “ ‘Love and Consequences’ probably can’t be a memoir.”

But Gordon Sayre, a professor of English at the UO, has no such ambivalence. Seltzer’s book, in his estimation, is a fine example of a memoir in the great American tradition.

“Since the early days of American literature,” writes Sayre in a March 9 guest viewpoint, “the boundaries between novel and autobiography have been indistinct, and readers have eagerly confounded them.”

Sayre’s point is that readers like to be duped by fantastic true life tales, and so what if they do? Who’s hurt by it, anyway?

Certainly not Sayre, whose Native American literature students at UO included Seltzer. The professor feels no resentment that his prized student fooled him with her memoir and snookered him with a class paper in which she fabricated a childhood on an Indian reservation.

===

REPLY:  In December 2009, Linda Clare responded to the blog with a comment, which we reprint here in its entirety, because fair is fair.  Though we at Brevity would still disagree with her limited definition of embroidery — even adding decorative details which the writer knew to be false would be dishonest under our definition — it does seem as if the  Eugene newspaper expanded some on Ms. Clare’s ideas.

Linda S. Clare
URL    : http://www.godsonggrace.blogspot.com

Comment:
I only just today came across the blog entry and the comments about Peggy Seltzer. For the record, I do not ever encourage my students or anyone else to “embroider with untruths.” My essay in fact, stated, “So I tell them (students) that in dramatizing a story, it’s sometimes necessary to embroider.”  The author’s embellishment of the word embroider certainly changed my intent, which was to say that one may “misremember,” details as a comment remarked, but to fabricate the event itself or change the intent of the story is not what a memoir should be.  I’m sorry if my remarks were misinterpreted.  In my mind, embroidery is the addition of details to the story.  An untruth is simply a lie.

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§ 10 Responses to So, What Exactly Are They Smoking in Eugene, Oregon?

  • Todd says:

    Sayre’s comments are scary, but is academia really a source for truth or fact anymore? Perhaps it’s teachers like Sayre who make academia seem so inconsequential, except to other academics. Yes, there is fudging in American autobiography and other forms of creative nonfiction — I’m thinking of Capote’s In Cold Blood — but there is as much fact as fiction there too. To pass yourself off as a Native American involved with the Bloods in LA when you’re not, and to write about it — that makes a work of fiction, a novel, and the writer a novelist.

  • Andi says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Todd. Seltzer – like Frey – should have just written a novel. I, as a member of the academy, however, do think that we have a responsibility to encourage students to the truth in their writing. They see so much dishonesty, so much deception – think reality TV – that they’re lost in what is actually real. If we don’t encourage them to be truthful and honest about who they are, we are only encouraging them toward the deception and self-delusion that we see in our current presidential administration.

  • John says:

    As someone who works hard at crafting true-to-life creative nonfiction, I find Professor Sayre’s defense of Seltzer insulting. It’s this type of defense of the “moral right to lie” that is degrading the foundations upon which truthful, realistic memoirs have been built. We’ve seen much ambivalence to the truth (regarding Frey’s work), and now we’re seeing blatant defense of the right to lie. It’s sad.

    For Ms. Clare to encourage her memoir students “to ’embroider’ their dull life stories with untruths,” is a travesty. I am currently in the process of embroidering my personal life stories, but certainly not with untruths. In my book, I’m sharing personal stories from my childhood, and I’ve found it relevant to weave in stories of the history of the place where I grew up. The stories of the people and events of the past help lay a foundation and context for the stories I’m sharing. None of them are untrue, and I’m spending a lot of time and energy doing the necessary research to ensure that the stories I weave in are true and historical.

    It can be defeating to see so many people willing to take liberties with creative nonfiction, favoring the “creative” aspect far more than, and often to the exclusion of, the “nonfiction” aspect. What is so hard about telling real stories in a creative way? Why are we as a culture so hungry to present make-believe stories and present them as real? Isn’t the truth good enough any more?

    Andi has it write that we need to encourage students to seek out the truth in their writing. We need to “encourage them to be truthful and honest about who they are.”

  • Bradley says:

    I think Dr. Sayre’s comments should probably bother creative nonfiction writers and serious academic alike. Todd asks “is academia really a source for truth or fact anymore?” and my answer– most of the time– is yes. We might disagree on that, but I think what we can probably agree on is that Dr. Sayre– judging by his CV– is frankly unqualified to discuss the political and ethical responsibilities of the memoirist. Sure, he has the right to an opinion, but his scholarly focus is Native American literature, not creative nonfiction. As a member of an English Department– and as someone who has edited a translation of someone else’s memoir– he’s probably more familiar with this genre than my sister (who was raised by wolves and later sold crack with the Bloods*), but he’s hardly an expert.

    He can defend his former student all he wants, but his opinion doesn’t deserve any more weight than that of Seltzer’s mother, who no doubt is also learning a whole lot about creative nonfiction right about now. And he certainly shouldn’t be using his academic credentials in a different field to try to claim an expertise in this one. My Ph.D. work was focused on creative nonfiction and the history of the personal essay; I’ve read a lot of essays and memoirs by Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, and Gayle Pemberton, but that doesn’t make me a scholar of African American literature.

    *This is not an example of creative nonfiction. My sister was not, in fact raised by wolves, and has never– as far as I know– sold crack.

  • Bill says:

    I think Sayre is correct in the assertion there has been a literary haze that has historically enveloped the boundary line between the novel and autobiography (at times). I’ve always contended, for example, that a fellow who spent time in my neck of the woods and wrote about it–Ernest Hemingway–would probably be pressured by publishers today to pitch some of the Nick Adams stories as creative nonfiction…and I’m not so sure *some* of those stories couldn’t be presented that way and be able to pass the ethics test better than some of the stuff getting passed off today as nonfiction (ah, a debate for another time).

    But these stories were presented as fiction, even though many of the events, places, and people were inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences. And therein lies the retort to Sayre’s claim: the literature examples he alludes to were presented as FICTION, even though they were (perhaps and alledgedly) inspired by real people, real events.

    There is a vast difference between something being “inspired” by real events and the story being real itself. It is the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

    These authors who have gotten caught with their hands in the non-truth cookie jar have consciously violated a major no-no in nonfiction: making up scenes, situations, and conflicts that did not happen.

    Either you were a member of the Bloods and sold drugs or you did not. Black and white, binary. Truth. Or Fiction. One or the other. The end.

    I tell my creative nonfiction students they must be true to the people, place, and time about which they write. Thus while their memories are subjective and faulty, the conflict they write about better have happened and they better be true to the emotional responses and the characters in the conflict–even though they as authors might take dramatic license in filling in the gaps in remembered dialog, for example.

    There needs to always be a sharp accountability to truth, a tireless willingness to make oneself accountable to the people, places, and times and the readers. That doesn’t mean that a universal truth can be achieved (ala an objective spitting out facts like Quindlen strives for). It can’t. Nor is that even desirable (in my opinion). But it means (if we do this creativen nonfiction thing correctly) readers are left only to grapple with the subjective meaning and the author’s place and mindset within the story instead of having to debate the basic structure of the story as having had existed or taken place at all.

    Again, big difference.

  • sarahemc2 says:

    There are, and always will be, complex issues of truth in memoir. In her essay “Blessing of the Animals (The Sun, Nov 2007),” Brenda Miller tells a very poignant story about returning from vacation as a child and learning that her dog had died in the kennel during their trip. “But now I know this whole scene is a figment of memory…” she then tells us, after discovering that none of what she remembered was true. Her dog Sheba died at a different time, in a different place, and in a different way that she remembered.

    I also know, from attending a workshop by Miller, that the story she tells a story about a white duck later in the essay is also misremembered. That story, though, she does not correct, but let’s stand. I don’t remember what parts of it she later learned from her parents were false… I think maybe it was a goose, or two geese, and not a duck. But the story she tells is the story she had remembered. It wasn’t a deliberate falsehood, it was simply the inescapabe vaguery of memory.

    Where do memoirists need to draw the line? If we learn that our own memories are wrong, in detail or in whole, can we still include them? What if they shape later decisions, and in correcting them to fit the memories of others, the narrative arcs of our own lives fall apart?

    It seems to me that academics who encourage deceit for the sake of “livelier” writing are missing the very difficult questions that face writers of creative nonfiction. And it’s those questions… the asking of them, and the ways in which we answer them… that are at the core of what makes the genre unique.

    Also, lying is bad. My mother told me so. She remembers it, too. I asked before I wrote it down.

    Peace,
    Sarah

  • Bradley says:

    Sarah,

    I appreciate what you’re saying. When my mother finally read my manuscript, she pointed out that I had misremembered a key point. Although I was pretty firm in my conviction that I knew what I knew, she eventually convinced me that my memory was wrong; hers, in this instance, was probably more reliable.

    But I didn’t change that sequence, because memoir is– first and foremost– a record of the author’s memory, not his mother’s (though that shouldn’t be read as an argument to eschew research and rely solely on intuition). Frankly, the matter my mom and I disagreed on could never be conclusively resolved (as it involved just the two of us and a roomful of strangers I’d never be able to track down); I happen to believe my mother’s memory is more reliable on this point, but I also know that I have this vivid memory of what went down and how. And so my memoir reflects my understanding. I think readers understand, when they read a memoir, that they’re getting the world as filtered through one author’s (occasionally flawed) consciousness, and can accept these types of errors.

    What the Freys and the Seltzers of the world don’t get is that lying is not the same thing as misremembering. James Frey went on TV and claimed that the problem with his book is that “memory is subjective.” But that wasn’t the problem at all– if James Frey had honestly misremembered things, if he honestly believed that the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his truck was a bag of crack cocaine– then most of us probably would have said “oh, leave the poor idiot alone– can’t you see he’s not well?” But Frey chose to take his memoir away from his memories; he chose to lead his readers away from his own own understanding of subjective truth and towards a fictional reality where bad, bad James Frey was the baddest man in the whole damn town, even though that obviously wasn’t how he remembered things (as most of us immediately suspected and as he later admitted).

    I think, ultimately, it gets down to intention. Brenda Miller– like Nabokov, Conroy, and others– tried to represent her consciousness on the page. None of us are omnipotent, so there are bound to be mistakes. But Frey and Seltzer didn’t make mistakes– their distortions of facts aren’t accidental; they’re the entire point. And when you consciously make up a story that didn’t happen to you, then what you’re creating is fiction.

  • sarahemc2 says:

    Bradley,

    I hope I didn’t make it sound as if Brenda Miller was doing anything other than misremembering. I agree… intention is key, as is history. If you believed something at the time the events you are writing about took place, and it impacted your decisions in that time, doesn’t the “you” inside the memoir need to also believe it?

    Peace!
    Sarah

  • Bradley says:

    Sarah,

    No worries. You were perfectly clear.

  • I only just today came across the blog entry and the comments about Peggy Seltzer. For the record, I do not ever encourage my students or anyone else to “embroider with untruths.” My essay in fact, stated, “So I tell them (students) that in dramatizing a story, it’s sometimes necessary to embroider.” The author’s embellishment of the word embroider certainly changed my intent, which was to say that one may “misremember,” details as a comment remarked, but to fabricate the event itself or change the intent of the story is not what a memoir should be. I’m sorry if my remarks were misinterpreted. In my mind, embroidery is the addition of details to the story. An untruth is simply a lie.

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