—Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art
Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir has sold over 100,000 copies; it’s the number one book to buy if you want to write or edit memoir.
What accounts for the abiding popularity of this handbook, first published in 1997? Two things, I think: the tone and the tools for telling true stories.
A poet, memoirist, and writing instructor, Barrington writes in a kind and confiding tone to authors struggling to shape the loose ends of life into an art form. Authors must “dig deep,” she says, to find the heart of their story. Her voice is passionate but unsentimental; it’s the voice of someone who has known pain (her parents drowned in a cruise-ship accident when she was nineteen) and who has struggled with her own identity.
Barrington makes writers feel that their stories are valuable, but she also asks hard questions like “Why should anyone care? “Should I tell the truth if it will hurt someone?” “If I don’t remember everything, how much can I make up?”
Barrington wrestled with such questions when she wrote her memoir, Lifesaving. For answers she looked to books on writing memoir but couldn’t find the help she wanted. This book is the one she wished she had had then. Over the course of twelve chapters, Barrington opens up conversations about writing memoir and addresses nuts-and-bolts elements of the craft. Each chapter ends with “suggestions for writing” to encourage writers to practice the skills they’ve just read about.
Reading this book made me consider writing a memoir myself. Writing is hard work, much harder than editing. But that’s how good this book is.
As an editor of memoir, Barrington’s book has helped me to think through structural issues like voice, premise, beginnings and endings, scene and summary, chronology, themes, and unity. Barrington is widely read in memoir, and she draws on her reading to illustrate these structural elements.
- A memoir is an aspect of a life, not the whole life: “For the memoir to work, you will always have to lop off a piece of a bigger story.”
- Musing — the personal, conversational voice of the author – is essential to memoir: “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge.”
- A memoir is not therapy. The author should not be writing to elicit pity or to satisfy a need for revenge: “The writer must have done her work, made her peace with facts, and be telling the story for the story’s sake.”
- No matter what the chronology, a memoir is anchored in an implied “now” – the vantage point from which the author tells the story. This “now” cannot be changed.
If I could ask for one thing more from this book, it would be firmer guidance on the line between truth and art. What is truth, after all? Is emotional truth “truer” than factual truth? How reliable is memory? How much can an author make up without straying into fiction?
Barrington leaves the answers to authors: “It is up to you to decide how imaginatively you transform the known facts—exactly how far you allow yourself to go to fill in the memory gaps.”
If a fact is public knowledge, the author should take pains to get it right. But in the realm of memory, Barrington says, the author is the authority.
As editors, how are we to respond? A clue lies in Barrington’s idea that the author and reader enter into a contract: the author promises to tell the truth, and the reader agrees to trust the story. Editors, then, should trust the author. If the author presents the work as creative nonfiction, we treat it as such.
But how much to trust becomes uncertain as soon as we start thinking about it. Will readers trust the veracity of an author who portrays several neighbours as one neighbour, combining traits from all of them? Will they be troubled to learn that an author has compressed a recurring event, like family dinners, into a scene that purports to present one particular dinner? Will they care that the author has invented dialogue? Writers of creative nonfiction have done all of these things and not lost readers’ trust.
Barrington argues that such liberties are permissible as long as the author honours the essence of the story: “Perhaps as memoirists, we have to make our peace with the possibility that there is no more an absolute truth in memoir than there is in life.”
All well and good, but if an author strays radically from the truth and readers find out, they will feel duped and outraged. A notorious example is James Frey’s memoir of his criminal career and addictions, A Million Little Pieces. The book shot to the top of the bestseller lists in 2005 following an interview with Oprah Winfrey. But a few months later, the investigative magazine Smoking Gun revealed that Frey had “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished” the tale.
Oprah denounced the author and railed against Doubleday for failing to check Frey’s story. “I’m trusting you,” Oprah said. “I’m trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book as fiction or autobiographical or memoir. I’m trusting you.”
Despite these debacles, when it comes to creative nonfiction, the publishing industry still relies on trust, and that trust comes down to authorial intent. It is simply not feasible or desirable for editors to police the truthfulness of creative nonfiction. Yet we can, through conversations with the author, ask what sort of “poetic license” the author has taken. We can suggest that the author add a note to the memoir explaining what facts were changed and why. And we can alert the author to the consequences of going too far.