My Kind of Memoir

By Bill, Ott | American Libraries, June-July 2008 | Go to article overview

My Kind of Memoir


Bill, Ott, American Libraries


I'm ambivalent about the current furor over memoirs that bend the truth or even fabricate it altogether. Don't get me wrong. I certainly do believe that if you're going to write an autobiographical memoir about your experiences in a concentration camp during World War II, it's necessary that you, in fact, did have some experiences in a concentration camp.

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I get anxious, though, when I read about the lengths to which various reporters are going these days to expose the untruths in every memoir that hits print. Whether it's websites that scan a 400-page manuscript looking for passages from other books, or determined fact checkers out to disprove even the smallest details in any piece of autobiographical prose, it's as if anyone who sits down to write about his or her life these days becomes the target of an all-powerful truth police.

That's fine if you happen to be writing the kind of memoir that depends on the unvarnished truth, but not every memoir is like that. Memoirs, like novels, are either plot-directed or character-directed. A memoir about something terrible that happened to you is clearly plot-directed, and as such, that plot can't be imagined--unless, of course, you choose to write your story as a novel, which, let's not forget, it what James Frey claims he set out to do in A Million Little Pieces until his publisher told him it would sell better as a memoir.

Frey has always reminded me of the kid in Dr. Seuss's And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, who wanted to impress his parents with all the interesting things he saw on the way home from school. …

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