Honesty in Memoir, Ver. 3.0

April 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our friend Richard Gilbert has advanced the Shields/Reality Hunger argument on his blog, with some deeper thought and analysis.  Gilbert, initially resistant, has come to agree with many of Shields’  ideas.

Well worth the read:

As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.

But as concerns Shields’ thoughts on shaping memory, Gilber writes:

Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him…  hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.

Visit Gilbert’s Blog here.

Crazy Little Thing Called Memory

January 9, 2009 § 10 Comments

The New York Times reported recently about yet another scandal, this one with quite a twist. Apparently, the Christmas essay Neale Donald Walsch posted at Beliefnet.com a few weeks ago was plagiarized from an essay Candy Chand published in Clarity ten years ago.

The essay relates the story of the writer’s young son (both Walsch and Chand have sons named Nicholas) participating in a school Christmas pageant. When members of the choir were meant to hold up letters spelling the name of the song “Christmas Love,” the girl with the “m” held hers up upside down, creating the phrase “Christ Was Love.”

Heartwarming, yes. Which is why it has been circulated around the internet for years, where Walsch apparently found it. It’s beginning to look a lot like plagiarism.

But here’s the trick: Walsch is claiming that he actually believed the story was his own. He had told the story so many times since first hearing it that somehow his memory wove it into his own experience. When he meant to remember the words on the page, his mind provided images instead—of his own Nicholas no doubt—and he took it for a real memory.

Sounds plausible, but many are skeptical.

As one whose mother has corrected his memory on more than one occasion, I want to believe Walsch. But does that excuse him? Is it still plagiarism if it’s unconscious plagiarism? And what does it say about the memories we write that aren’t being claimed by someone else? Are they to be trusted? How do we manage our memory?

DG, M.E.

Give Big Jim a Piece of Your Mind

April 14, 2008 § 5 Comments

I’m not sure if this is sign of mental instability or pure genius, but our friend James Frey (author of the memoirs A Million Little Totally Made-Up Pieces and Leonard: My Inspirational Best Friend from Jail Though I Wasn’t Really in Jail) has a blog and voicemail, and he is urging you to leave him a message:

Just call (917) 720-7510
(Be cool Be Nasty Say whatever you want)

Yes, he is inviting abuse, and if you wish you can even listen to what everyone says: http://bigjimindustries.com/saynow2.php

But the disturbing part is that most people are calling in to say nice things like “you are the literary voice of this century” and “despite the critics, your books rock.”

Of course, all of this underway to create a groundswell of interest in his first new third novel:

**** BUY IT HERE ****

On Truth in Memoir: Remembrance and Amnesia

April 9, 2008 § 3 Comments

(Another note from Gary Presley, author of the Brevity essay Proselegy and Coda)

Funny things happen on the bumpy road from life to death, and being mauled by a grizzly bear would rank far down on my list of incidents to include in a memoir. But as part of a discussion group focused on creative nonfiction piece, I did read an interesting take on a bloody confrontation with Ursus arctos horribilis.

One member of the group asked, “Why do we read this stuff?” I knew what she meant. When I was a kid, I was a worry wart, and a kindly teacher once told me “Sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof,” which I learned later she borrowed from the Holy Carpenter.

But the question also made me realize that I believe reading for information and knowledge may be secondary in the human dynamic. I think we crave Story. I think we seek to fill the same need once expressed around campfires thousands of years ago – when we had nothing to protect ourselves from grizzly bears and other things intent on blood and slaughter but a flint-pointed stick.

The thing is, every person has more than one Story, and sometimes, at least for me, I write and rewrite and edit so much that I feel as I’m drifting away from those memories that comprise who I am. By that I mean the the internal narrative I relate to myself, the film strip that unwinds in memory as I subjectively reconstruct what happened.

I begin to think, “Is it a true internal narrative, at least in the sense that readers will understand as true.”

Hold on now — I’m not going to go all Peggy Seltzer on you.

The quality I am attempting to describe is more akin to remembrance. We humans are prone to back-construct a narrative, one often more dramatic than what actually occurred – primarily because we need a memory with which we can live without huddling in a corner crying.

I’m a forgiving sort, and so understanding all the foibles which plague our fragile psyches, I think most internal narratives may consist of both remembrance and amnesia, missing perhaps some things so deeply painful or guilt-inspiring or less-than-heroic that we cannot face, explain, or even understand.

Obviously then, if there is an internal narrative, there is a narrative constructed from outside perceptions.

There are people I know who look through the window into the zoo enclosure where this creature named Gary Presley lives, and they glimpse a beast far different from the one shining in its internal narrative. There are windows for my wife, for my brother, for his wife, for my one-time boss — for every person who knew me “when” and those who knew me “then.”

Like every other human being, I am a prism. No single person (call that person a “biographer,” or classify that person as yourself with the memoirist label) will ever be able to construct a complete and unbiased and entirely truthful narrative of a human life.

I suppose – no, let’s say “I have faith” – that there is be One Mystic Ultimate Truth, but there are many truths. The best we can do is to find the truest part of our own when we want to set down our world on paper.

Gary Presley

You Call it a NOVEL!!!!!

March 26, 2008 § 7 Comments

Memoir scandals show we need a new definition of ‘truth’

Are memoirs and their authors bound to tell nothing but the truth? I’ve been asking this question for years and the answer, it seems, is yes. And no.

After reading about the recalled memoir “Love and Consequences,” I gasped. The author, Margaret Jones, aka Peggy Seltzer, lives only a few miles from me, near the dingy classroom in the Lane Community College Downtown Center where I teach memoir writing one evening a week. Jones has written a complex, beautiful hoax. In my mind, it doesn’t make the writing any less complex or beautiful. What I don’t know is what to call it.

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.


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

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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