On Monday I started teaching an online course on writing the book-length memoir for Stanford University Continuing Studies. For the next 10 weeks my students and I will be thinking and talking (or I should say e-mailing) about writing memoir, including the question that the Watergate hearings posed so beautifully: “Where does the truth lie?” I’ve always enjoyed the double entendre of “lie” in that line. How do the facts of the past and the truth get along? It’s clear that the facts do not produce the truth, not the emotional, psychological truth that the modern memoir demands. But how important are the facts, and what exactly are they? Are details facts? Are they a form of truth? And if so, which ones and to what degree? Anyone writing out of memory, out of the past, quickly encounters subtle and difficult encounters with facts and truth.
This was brought home to me when I read a fascinating opinion piece called “How Memoirists Mold the Truth” in this past Sunday’s New York Times, by the memoirist and novelist Andre Aciman. Aciman was born in 1951 in Alexandria, Egypt. He grew up in a French-speaking multinational Jewish family which had settled in Alexandria in 1905. He moved with his family to Italy when he was 15 and then to New York at 19. He’s currently a professor at the graduate center of City University of New York, where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. He’s the author of the Whiting award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995) as well as a number of other books, and he has a new novel coming out in April called Harvard Square.
He opens his essay with the story of his mother furiously rearranging the living room furniture whenever she was enraged and fed up with her life. This was her attempt to try to take control and put a new face on things, in light of not being able to change much else about her situation. It taught him, Aciman says, “that if changing the layout of your problems doesn’t necessarily solve them, it does make living with them easier.” He extends this lesson to the work of memoirists, who, “unable to erase the ugliest moments of their past or unwilling to make new ones, can shift them around. They don’t distort the truth, they nudge it.”
I’m not sure what he means by “nudge” here.
He says that everyone has reasons for altering the past. But isn’t the work of memoirists the exact opposite—to be true to the past to the best of one’s ability? It’s the word “altered” that gives me trouble here. He continues in the same paragraph, “We may want to embellish or gloss over the past, or we may want to repress it, or to shift it just enough so as to be able to live with it. Some, in an effort to give their lives a narrative, a shape, a logic, end up altering not the facts they’ve known but their layout – exactly what my mother was doing.”
I accept that memoirists give their lives a narrative shape by rearranging the material to some extent. In my memoir Crossing the Moon, for example, I had my mother say a line to me (“People who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.”) in a scene in which she did not actually say that line. She did say those exact words to me, only I’m not sure when or where – I think over the phone. So I altered not the facts but the layout, to make for a better read.
But Aciman loses me when he says we may want to embellish, gloss over, repress or shift the past so as to be able to live with it. That seems to me quite different from rearranging material that actually occurred.
But Aciman is right when he says, “Writing alters, reshuffles, intrudes on everything. As small a thing as a shifty adverb, or an adjective with attitude, or just a trivial little comma is enough to reconfigure the past [I think he’s inflating that comma a bit but never mind . . .].” Anyone who writes memoir knows it’s not the simple, straightforward act some people imagine it to be to write about the past.
Aciman recounts how in 1990 he published an account of a walk with his brother on their last night in Alexandria. Four years later, when he published his memoir, Out of Egypt, he described that walk as one he took alone. He took that same walk when he returned to Egypt in 1995, to see whether he remembered walking there alone or with his brother. A third option presented itself: it occurred to him that he might’ve made the whole thing up. The written version or I should say versions had taken the place of what actually happened.
Today I remember the walk I took alone, but only because I spent more time writing it. Ask me which of the two is truer, I’d say, ‘Probably the walk with my brother.’ Ask me again and I might admit making the whole thing up. Ask me yet again, and I won’t remember.
I found this confession totally candid. Certainly once you try to write the past, what you’ve written tends to become the memory, rather than the other way around. As Annie Dillard advised in her essay “To Fashion a Text”:
Don’t hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid—eschew—writing a memoir. Because it is a certain way to lose them. You can’t put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them.
Aciman says a similar thing when he relates how within a few weeks after his mother had rearranged the furniture, it was no longer possible to recall the previous living room configuration.
Words radiate something that is more luminous, more credible, and more durable than real facts, because under their stewardship, it is not truth we’re after; what we want instead is something that was always there but that we weren’t seeing and are only now, with the genius of retrospection, finally seeing as it should have occurred and might as well have occurred and, better yet, is still likely to occur. In writing, the different between the no more and the not yet is totally negligible.
This he calls “the spectral realm of quantum mnemonics,” and thus leaves some of us, myself included, in the dark.
It’s a maddening essay. He’ll say something that seems quite brilliant and then go off the deep end! As you can see in the quote above. He’s into ontological waters where I can’t swim.
There seem to be two camps of memoir readers/critics. Or perhaps it would be better to describe these as two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand are the Fact Sticklers. They want to know whether the brother was there or not, dammit! It matters to them, and it undercuts the reliability of the memoirist who plays fast and loose with the facts. Aciman’s answer to this is that “Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked.” This is the sort of thing that makes the Facts Sticklers apoplectic.
At the other end of the spectrum are the loosey-goosey Literary Liberals. They don’t care whether the brother was there or not; they are after something else. They want to know if the scene works, if it’s true to something below and beyond mere factual accuracy. Is it true in the deepest sense, in a spiritual, emotional, psychological way? Is it what the persona of the memoir actually felt? The brother is a detail which may or may not matter. They trust the writer to make that determination. They, like Aciman, may not believe that the past is solid and can be captured with a high degree of accuracy. They accept the role of the imagination in the writing of memoir. They don’t want things that matter made up– but they’re willing to accept the kind of nudging, perhaps, that Aciman seems to be championing.
Most memoir writers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They’re doing their best to be true to the past as they know it. At the same time, they understand that the act of writing transforms the past, replaces it, and creates it to some extent.
Aciman says, “We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.”
I don’t think this is true for most memoirists. They write out of the person they really are now about the person they once happened to be. But maybe Aciman means that in the writing, we become or at least access our deeper, truer selves, both now and then. We write a version of the past that is truer than a mere recitation of factually accurate details. I haven’t read the two passages of that last walk in Alexandria that Aciman refers to. But I can imagine that his focus was on some personal truth of the experience, what he would call one version of the past, that was true, not literally to exactly what happened, but to the felt-sense of the experience, the literary truth of it.
I don’t mind, myself, that he nudged the brother out of the way.
P.S. The online comments following Aciman’s piece make for fascinating reading as people react to his provocative piece.