Dilemmas of memoir and personal narrative (part 1) – Accuracy

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First of two parts – “Accuracy”

I recently gave a shot at writing a short work of creative non-fiction on the blogging platform, Medium. The essay, written eight weeks ago, documents feelings I had after visiting California this summer.

I’ve been reluctant to write personal essays for several reasons. I don’t want to hurt or embarrass friends and family. Given their centrality to my life, it would be impossible to explore memories without including my observations about them, the stories they share with me or the things we’ve experienced together. Anonymity or pseudonyms might not be enough to keep their privacy – impossible in the case of family members.

While playing a weekly game of tennis, one friend pointed out that violating privacy is just one of many concerns writers should consider. He noted, for example, it might also be hard for friends to read thoughts I hadn’t shared with them before  – finding out only after the fact once the story was in print, as if I had withheld a secret.

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I’ve also wondered about the accuracy of memoirs themselves. While I’m pretty good at scribbling down bits of dialogue on days I have notable conversations (it’s not creepy, it’s a form of journaling), my impressions of a day’s events change. Sometimes dramatically.

Initial reflections are often consumed by the rawness of fresh experience. My interpretations are skewed because I haven’t arrived to the point where I can shift to the perspectives of the people I’m writing about. Incorporating their feelings – or at least running through some fact-checking with them – would undoubtedly add to my accuracy as a narrator.

But that might muddy the waters – especially when trying to find meaning in a mess of memories. Writers necessarily have to adopt a slant when they tell a story.

Former Guardian editor Tim Radford summarized this best in a manifesto he composed for journalists:

“Life is complicated, but journalism cannot be complicated. It is precisely because issues – medicine, politics, accountancy, the rules of Mornington Crescent – are complicated that readers turn to the Guardian, or the BBC, or the Lancet … expecting to have them made simple. So if an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole … A story will only ever say one big thing … You may put twiddly bits into your story, but only if you can do so without departing from the one linear narrative you have chosen.”

Hearing me ramble about myself is only worthwhile if my rambling tells an interesting story. To make the tale coherent, entire moments in time must be cut. This often removes incidents that, if included, lead to an altogether different message.

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Let me offer a basic example: Say, I write about the first half of a day in which I get rained on, fight with my brother, and fail an exam. That version of the day was unpleasant.

Suppose then, the second half of that day goes swimmingly: I get asked out on a date, win a scholarship, and am treated to dinner by my parents.

A story based on only half of the events is selective and contradicts the other one. Yet both halves are valid. Perhaps a compilation would be more nuanced and present a better story. However, combining the halves not make thematic sense.

Combining the day’s overarching emotions might also fail to take advantage of life’s natural pauses, which help divide time into meaningful chunks. Historians draw attention to such breaks by slapping dates on events and establishing a timeline. Creative non-fiction writers use these breaks as natural dividers because they often help us focus on a particular aesthetic that existed at a particular moment. A change in emotion often signals a story may be ended.

And frankly, the story about the wonderful day is probably not as interesting.

I will discuss this in my next post.

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2 thoughts on “Dilemmas of memoir and personal narrative (part 1) – Accuracy

  1. Thomas Wolfe did not hesitate to write about his family and friends. Have you read “Look Homeward Angel?” It is great literature which was not well received in Ashville, N.C.

    • I will have to look into it. It’s something I’m still struggling with, but I think my changing names and locations is at least a superficial safeguard (like Wolfe created a fictitious town). I suppose you can say you tried to preserve anonymity, even if the real places and people are obvious.

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