The Fake Memoir

April 21, 2011 § 8 Comments


Steve Almond usually manages to be wise, amusing, and sensible all at once in his occasional Rumpus pieces, and he’s kicked the proverbial triple pickle again this week with his post The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir

Here’s an excerpt, but when you have a moment to spare, hop on over and read the entire thing.  Make your students read it.  Tattoo it on your dog:

You will have heard, by now, of the curious case of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. As documented by the author Jon Krakauer, among others, Mortenson appears to have falsified vast swaths of his best-selling memoir, including a dramatic abduction by the Taliban.

Over the past decade, the fake memoir has become a genre unto itself. A few years ago, an Oregon writer named Margaret Seltzer wrote a fake memoir called Love and Consequences, about her years running drugs in South Central Los Angeles. Around the same time, Misha Defonseca wrote Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have lived with a pack of wolves, while wandering Europe in search of her parents. Defonseca was not even Jewish. The list goes on.

Every time one of these memoirs gets debunked, writers and critics debate what constitutes non-fiction. Often, there’s an argument put forward about something called “emotional truth,” which is supposed to provide moral cover for lying. My definition of creative non-fiction is simple. It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.

The moment you start making up events that you know did not take place, you’re doing another sort of work. It’s called fiction.

Thank you, Mr. Almond.

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§ 8 Responses to The Fake Memoir

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    It’s easy to say lying is bad. So is stealing and murdering. Greg Mortenson or any memoir author who lies is murdering truth and trust, and stealing money by selling us a book under false pretenses. Having said that, the media brouhaha is in my opinion, more cynical than the original fault. Because we all love to hate murderers, bashing them sells papers or increases web traffic. But the bashing and gnashing misses a more important point. Trying to turn life into story is a huge, noble, complex, literary-cultural-psychological endeavor. The liars don’t diminish that challenge, but the bashers do.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • Kate Kaiser says:

    LOVE your definition of creative non-fiction.
    LOVe this line too “Tattoo it on your dog”

  • brevity says:

    Kate: That’s Steve Almond’s definition of creative nonfiction, but we are responsible for the dog tattoo suggestion.

  • Great article, thanks for bringing it to my attention, Dinty!

    Sometimes it’s so hard to get memory right, the slippery devil. Giving up on that responsibility is where invention sneaks ins, consciously or otherwise.

    P.S. I don’t have a dog to tattoo, unfortunately. And I wouldn’t dare try it on my cat.

  • Jane Churchon says:

    Mr.Almond’s comments are, as always, insightful and original.

    I’ve had disagreements with EDITORS who wanted me to change this or change that to make the narrative more or less dramatic. I’ve come to my own, cynical conclusion: as a culture, we’re hopelessly immersed in lies and manipulation, and most of us (including writers, editors publishers) create versions of the truth that correspond with our ideas of what the truth SHOULD be, not what it is.

    As a writer, I can say that it’s a mighty foe to fight–one piece of dialogue here, one drunken rage there, and the narrative shifts into a more moldable shape. I also think that using the truth as our clay—being willing to mold whatever is actually subjectively true (as Mr. Almond says)–is not only our challenge and our duty as CNF writers, but also our reward.

    I know that writing CNF, and staying true to what really happened versus what would make the storyline more convenient, has brought me immense psychological, emotional and psychic rewards. I have much more insight into who I am (not who I wish I were), much more insight into who others are (and not the stick figures I want them to be), and, most importantly, much more compassion for humanity in general. The struggle reminds me that that all of us–not just writers— are engaged in some version of my struggle: discerning what is false, what is cultural overlay, what is true for others but not for me. In this struggle, I learn to recognize myself, learn to speak of the truth in way that is compassionate both toward the people who populate my life and toward gawky and imperfect me.

    • brevity says:

      Jane — Well put. I often tell my students, “Sticking to the truth, though difficult, will lead you to discoveries you would never make if you allowed yourself to take liberties.”

  • Jane Churchon says:

    PS: I don’t need to tattoo it on my dog. She is the embodiment of truth and beauty already.

  • True! It’s not a thin line that differentiates memoirs and fiction. It’s a broad one!!

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