Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

Peter  Selgin

Author’s Note

Peter Selgin

Author of The Inventors

The Art of Memoir: Accuracy or Honesty?

Posted by Peter Selgin on 11 Oct 2016

| Comments (13 so far)

Sometimes one sentence is all it takes to win—or break—a reader’s trust. This was brought home to me recently following the launch of my memoir, The Inventors. I had just gotten back from a two-coast, twenty-venue, overly ambitious book tour, one that left me with a bad back (all that driving), a deflated ego (reading to five people, including the store clerk), a renewed appreciation for the kindness of strangers (all those people who did show up), and the wistful yearning—assuming it still wasn’t too late—to become a literary recluse à la Salinger, Pynchon, McCarthy, or Ferrante, when my friend Carol Bergman emailed me:

Peter, The Inventors is a great accomplishment. The writing is precise and luminous all at once.

Carol, who has written some fiction but is primarily a journalist, went on to tell me that she’d written about my book for her blog, and invited me to click on the link provided and have a look. The post is titled, “Fact or Fiction?” “Hmm,” I thought. “I don’t like the sound of that.” I went on to read:

I just finished reading a very affecting book, The Inventors, by Peter Selgin ... It’s a coming-of-age memoir about his well-known inventor father, an inspiring 8th grade teacher, and Peter’s own subsequent “invention” and “reinvention.” It’s told using a mostly second-person narration, an intriguing choice that works well. But why this choice? I’ve sent Peter a query and hope he will answer before I post this blog. He’s just returned from a successful book tour. …

So far, so good. I kept reading:

The teacher is never identified, nor are one or two other characters in the story. As the revelations are often troubling, and this is ostensibly a memoir not a novel, the absence of identification feels like an ellipsis. The teacher and Peter’s father are dead, other people are not. Was Peter worried about offending? Protecting? Why did he make this decision? As of this writing, I am not sure.

All of this was fine by me. I had what I felt were sound reasons both for using the second person, and for not naming the teacher—reasons that I did indeed discuss in an email to Carol. But I still hadn’t finished reading her blog. It continues:

But I was stopped short by this sentence from one of the contemporary first-person journal entries: “If I mix a little fiction and nonfiction, a little lie with the truth, it’s by way of making truth even truer” (page 145). After that, I’m left to wonder if anything Peter describes in his story—his feelings, the anecdotes—is true, or where the truth lies, if anywhere, or if I have just been reading a very good made-up story by a very fine writer and, if so, if I have been tricked in some way into thinking that what Peter says happened really happened. Maybe The Teacher, as he is called, didn’t ever exist. Maybe he was invented, a figment of Peter’s imagination.

I have strong opinions about fabrication in nonfiction work: I think the writer loses credibility. It’s probably my journalism muscle, but there it is. Lying politicians, cover-ups, a manipulative market-driven mass media. Remember James Frey, who was advised to transpose his novel A Million Little Pieces into a memoir—without proper guidance, because it would sell better—and then got into trouble with Oprah on live television?

In nonfiction, we can write imaginatively, even experimentally, of course, but fabrication and conflation, that doesn’t work for me unless the book is labeled fiction or autobiographical fiction.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I had only myself to blame for having aroused Carol’s suspicions. In fact—and as I explained to Carol in a subsequent email response—that is one of my book’s purposes. Here’s part of what I wrote her:

I agree with you that a nonfiction work, even a literary performance/memoir, owes its readers some measure of “accuracy.” In the case of The Inventors, the issue of “truth vs. fiction” is one that the book’s title itself—as well as the afterward by my twin brother George (which you unfortunately didn’t read in the advance copy) address directly. Parts of the book are most certainly invented—but they are invented inadvertently and not aggressively or purposefully (à la James Frey) and by the imaginative contributions of memory. But these parts effect details mainly. No scenes or events have been invented purposefully out of whole cloth. The book tries very hard to be honest, but at the same time it’s a work of memory. And so—and as my twin brother points out in his afterward—at least according to him I never stole a “fountain pen” from him; in fact what I must have stolen was just a nice ordinary pen, since, as he claims, he owned no such pen… But my memory has since turned that pen into a fountain pen, and to be true to my memory, despite George’s having “corrected” me according to his memory, I wrote the scene as I remembered it, with a fountain pen stolen from his desk drawer.

I went on—a bit too defensively, it seems to me in retrospect—to say that my memoir took great pains, from its title to my twin brother’s final words, to let my readers know what they were reading, or had read: a memoir about inventors by someone who himself is an inventor, as we all are—especially all of us who attempt to grasp “the truth,” using—not just words (unreliable enough in themselves), but narrative memory, which is notoriously unreliable.

The next day Carol wrote back:

I am still queasy about that sentence. To invent and reinvent as we are evolving into adulthood—and beyond—to mis-remember and unintentionally recite a narrative that attempts to make sense of what happened—that is all understandable and usable in the memoir. But to introduce fiction—not fictional devices, but fabrication—into nonfiction, for me, is a form of deceit, a dishonorable intention. It manipulates a captive audience—your readers.

Perhaps my judgment about all this is harsh, even retro, not the trend. I am primarily a journalist and you are primarily a novelist. And so we have different perspectives.

Unwilling to just let it go at that, I emailed Carol again. Understand, my defensiveness—part of it, anyway—was owing to the fact that Carol is a very fine writer, someone whose opinion I’ve always valued. It mattered to me what she thought. And it disturbed me that she might have misunderstood my intentions so completely, or worse, that I could have made my intentions so unclear, or worse still: that she might conclude that I had as little integrity as that Frey fellow. And—worst of all—that it might be the case.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I think that all storytellers—and that means everyone—“introduce a little fiction” into their stories. Not that they do so consciously, necessarily (and as you, understandably, assume); but inevitably, no matter how hard they may try not to. The statement about “mixing fiction with nonfiction” is to the whole point, really, of the memoir: that we are all inventors. One doesn’t write a memoir without inventing. Cutting that line you object to would not make it any less the case. It would be a strictly cosmetic surgery, one that might allow you recommend the book as “nonfiction.” Well, guess what: in all the other memoirs that you’ve read, that line—however materially absent—might as well exist. Show me a memoir where it couldn’t?

I’m reminded of the time when a New York Times editor phoned me about a travel essay I’d sent her and that she wanted to publish (and that, alas, had already been taken by Salon). She asked me, incidentally, if every word of it were true. I said, “Yeah, pretty much.” From the long pause that followed, I gathered that this wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I should have said, “Absolutely.” That would probably have satisfied her. But it wouldn’t have been true. If we confess that we’ve “lied,” does that make us bigger liars than those who, having lied as much, deny it? “The statement on the blackboard is true; the statement on the handout is false.” Which statement of the Liar’s Paradox should we give more credence to? Neither, both?

As you see, I’d gotten myself pretty worked up. But these things mattered; I didn’t take them lightly. I wanted Carol to understand—and to understand myself—just what it was that I’d done, and what implications arose from it. With respect to the objective truth if in no other respect, I’m a postmodernist, since I don’t believe there’s such a thing. The broad facts may be objective; even the smallest details may be perceived objectively. But once memory gets hold of those perceptions, objectivity itself becomes a thing of the past.

I’d made my case pretty damn well, I thought. Still, Carol was having none of it.

Rereading your last email just now, there is still something niggling me about this. Introducing a little fiction unconsciously, I wouldn’t still call this nonfiction, necessarily. Are we having a ridiculous discussion about semantics, I wonder? Because it is unconscious, it is not fiction??? No, it is.

Of course with memoir there is a willing suspension of disbelief. As we are living the life, we don’t always take notes or run recording machines; we recreate scenes. (Of course, a writer is usually taking notes, but not at five or ten years old.)

I think disclaimers are important—“perhaps,” “as I remember,” that sort of thing—and your sentence, to be more charitable, is a disclaimer.

I still think it is more than cosmetic distinction to say a work is memoir or autobiographical fiction. That is a firm distinction for me.

Re: Your travel essay for Salon. What did you change, twist, enhance, that forced you to say—honestly—“pretty much.”  And were you gleeful at changing the well worn, accepted “rules” of journalism? It is defiant, Peter, and begs all these questions.

Again, our writing points of origin are different. I struggle in fiction to move away from observed/experienced “truth.” My imagination is not vivid, and I therefore do not consider myself primarily a fiction writer. I began as a journalist. And I have rules—especially these days when there is so much lying in our political world.

When we re-create the past, when we translate it into words on paper, we invent. It’s impossible not to. The unreliability of memory alone assures that impossibility. Combine it with the artifice necessitated by the act of composing a written narrative, and invention is doubly inevitable. Anyone who re-creates events as narrative applies art to memories that are already collaborations between what we know and what we imagine we know; that are already artful collaborations. If the author of such a work claims, “In telling this story I’ve told the absolute factual truth,” then—and only then—can we be assured that we are in the presence of a liar.

As for that Salon essay, everything I wrote in it happened. Did it happen exactly as I recounted it? Of course not. I would have had to film it with a video camera, and record the sound, in which case the result would be a movie, not a piece of prose, not a transcription or translation of events, places, people, into words: not a verbal rendering of experience. I don’t exist as any combination of words on paper, neither do my experiences. If I call the result “nonfiction,” it’s because the reported events did indeed occur.

With The Inventors I did my best to write an honest book, the main thesis of which is that we all—inevitably, on purpose or not, are self-inventors, especially with respect to the stories that we tell ourselves and others, with respect to memoir. Though it may serve as one, my book’s title is more than a “disclaimer.” It is a declaration of its subject.

Since we can’t have both, with memoir it comes down to a choice between honesty and accuracy. Given what I discovered in the process of writing it, I wouldn’t dare call The Inventors “accurate.” Still, I doubt that I could have written a more honest book.

Truer words! ” I don’t exist as any combination of words on paper, neither do my experiences.”  We are bigger than this just like the contents of a photo are more than can be seen. There is the coyote hiding and that flower about to bloom and the cloud about to burst or the storm that just passed. That tension between honesty and accuracy, to my mind, isn’t a distraction to our art it’s the Craft itself. I so completely appreciate this post. Just got your book, too.

Jenny Forrester on 11 Oct 2016

Ahhh. I think age is great leveler. I feel like I’ve reached the age where the distinction between fiction and nonfiction doesn’t really matter. I’m drawn to wherever the real story is. I have always preferred fiction. And have always felt that fiction told me more about the human experience than nonfiction. I think the line in your essay here ...“applying art to memory” says a lot. Poetry makes art of real life. Is it exactly real life? No. But it turns real life into art. And captures it. Makes it realer. Makes us feel it more. A memoir is not a fact sheet. It’s an attempt to re-invent a real life into a story. Giving it texture and beauty. Communicating its poetry, too. An attempt to lasso what it felt like to live it. Those thoughts may not be what transpired in real time. But what really spun in the heart. And that can easily elicit a fountain pen instead of a ball-point.

Paulette on 11 Oct 2016

Dear Peter - memoir is not an Excel sheet. And depending on whether your subject matter is a la James Frey (and others like him), accuracy and honesty are two very distinct creatures. I’ve encountered tremendous push-back on some personal essays I’ve written (and which were published) and threatened lawsuits - none of this went very far, but it was a stinging experience as well as a learning experience.  I’ve found some happier mediums for personal essays and also know all too well about whom I am committing pen to paper and the events about which I write. This does play a role for me when I write. I wrote many essays about my patients when I worked as a psychiatric nurse practitioner - these are particularly fertile ground - but privacy laws rule and err on the side of the patient. I made no errors on this. Name changes, description changes, or just plain old waiting for someone to die, were the order of the day. I found memoir particularly difficult - much more difficult than I expected and have since stayed with fiction.  I prefer honesty to accuracy, but I also don’t care much for writers who outright lie. The lines are not as carefully drawn as I would like except in extreme instances (as in Frey). I’ll be reading my personal essays at Johns Hopkins Univ. at the end of the month, these based on my nursing practice, but they have been time tested and reader approved. I wish you all luck in this continuing debate. I’ve heard so many writers talk and write about it but it is always good news to read/hear more. Oh, and since we are sharing time and space in the current issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, I enjoyed your piece. ES

Evelyn Sharenov from Portland, Oregon on 11 Oct 2016

When you write a memoir, you are doing so from your own memory, not another’s, so it is incumbent upon you to tell it as truly as you remember. That said, there’s a strong possibility that your memories will clash with another family member’s recollection of certain events or, even, their experience of another family member’s behavior. Either way, you stand a strong chance of pissing off somebody in your family when you choose to write a memoir. It is one of the things I worried about when I wrote my own, DEAD IN A DITCH - Growing Up in Texas & Other Near-Death Experiences. Fortunately, most people in my family loved it - phew - they just didn’t realize how close we all came to death over and over. I did have a couple of friends ask, “Did this REALLY happen?” and I’d always reply, “It’s as close to true as I can get it without a shot of sodium penathol.” Almost dying many times in one childhood makes for a whole lot of good stories. I am lucky I lived to tell them.

Jody Seay from Portland, OR on 11 Oct 2016

If your comments (Paulette, Evelyn, Jody) are any indication, it seems that maybe the discussion re: honesty vs. accuracy in nonfiction has taken a turn since the controversies of a decade (has it been that long already) ago, with people like yourselves taking a broader, more creative and less rigid view.  I think, too, that we all agree that facts do matter, that an honest (that word again) effort should be made to respect the facts at every turn. Interesting, too, how—for better and for worse–this discussion of “honest vs. accuracy” connects to the current political “debate,” as it were. But let’s not go there! Instead let me ask: is this a fair summary of people’s views on the subject: “Memory isn’t autobiography or fiction; it’s autobiographical fiction.”

Peter Selgin from GEORGIA on 11 Oct 2016

I have agreed with the use of autobiographical fiction as the way to more ‘accurately’ describe memoir, particularly since memory is subjective. This is the main point that requires agreement. When readers, editors and publishers can wipe off their glasses and accept this as a classification, I’d be most happy.  Things have eased up somewhat in the last decade. I can remember listening to two authors discussing writing family memoirs, both about the protracted deaths of fathers and the lengths they had to go through for ‘accuracy’ were insane - as in carrying tape recorders in their pockets - which tells you this was a decade ago. And yet, when you read Philip Roth’s ‘Patrimony,’ what is the point of such an acute eye on accuracy, when you understand you are reading a work of art, faulty memory and love, even if that love is tempered with mild or acrimonious family disagreement. After all, no one wanted to be chastised by Oprah on her television zoo. ES

Evelyn Sharenov from Portland, Oregon on 11 Oct 2016

Accuracy or honesty, hmmm.  First off, let me say I am very bad with numbers. That is an incontrovertible truth.  Were I just to have done the math I would have figured out years and years ago that my grandparents could never have been passengers on the Titanic. But somehow, when I was a wee bairn, I must have overheard my parents talking about the fact that my always-traveling grandparents, alias “Pampo and Grando,” had changed their reservations and stayed in Europe a few extra days rather than return home on the ship on which they were booked. Was there simultaneously a TV show on in the background talking about the Titanic disaster? Did my schoolroom class go to the library that morning or the next day and did I see some arresting picture book featuring the sinking carcass of the Titanic on the cover? Or was I just home from camp with what to me were completely frightening lyrics ringing in my ears: “It was sad, so said, it was sad, so sad, it was sad when that great ship went down, Husbands and wives and little children lost their lives, It was sad when that great ship went down.” However it happened, my grandparents, travel by ocean liner and the sinking of the Titanic conflated into one indelible memory. From that moment forward, whenever the subject of the Titanic came up, I would tell people, “Oh, my grandparents were booked on the Titanic. But my grandmother wanted to stay and see some show opening in London so they changed their travel plans and took another ocean liner.” In response there would be ooh’s and ahhh’s and mummur-ings of, “Oh, you wouldn’t have been born if they had not changed their plans!” And I would just nod my head. I told that story with the purest of hearts for decades. Indeed, it was only when I was in my 50’s that alluding to the story when my parents were present that my father said, “What on earth are you talking about?” When I told them, they were convulsed in laughter and quickly pointed out that the dates would never have jibbed anyway. But that memory is “a truth” of my life; the memory is honest, it is accurate. I believe there are memories that are unshakeable, even in the face of truth.

Susan Forrest Castle from Naples, Florida on 12 Oct 2016

We are bigger than this just like the contents of a photo are more than can be seen. That tension between honesty and accuracy, to my mind, isn’t a distraction to our art it’s the Craft itself. I so completely appreciate this post. Just got your book, too.

cybersam from brazil on 03 Jan 2017

Ahhh. I think age is great leveler. I feel like I’ve reached the age where the distinction between fiction and nonfiction doesn’t really matter. I’m drawn to wherever the real story is. I have always preferred fiction. And have always felt that fiction told me more about the human experience than nonfiction. I think the line in your essay here ...“applying art to memory” says a lot. Poetry makes art of real life. Is it exactly real life? No. But it turns real life into art. And captures it. Makes it realer. Makes us feel it more. A memoir is not a fact sheet. It’s an attempt to re-invent a real life into a story. Giving it texture and beauty.

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