Monday, December 3, 2012

On Being a Memoirist

Over the weekend I read an interview in the December issue of The Writer's Chronicle, with Mary Karr, professor, poet and memoirist (of three books that chronicle her life: The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit).  It was a compelling article, and like her books, she didn't hold back on revelations about her journey.  She calls a stint in a mental hospital, her "nervous breakthrough."  I couldn't help laughing at the humor, mostly directed at herself.

And curiously, when did autobiography morph into memoirist?  I much prefer the latter, though can't help wondering when the change occurred.  Having looked up both words, I'm at a loss to understand the difference, though I suppose it really doesn't matter, the objective being a life told by the person who lived it. 

After reading the article, I went back to one sentence in particular that struck me:

"A memoir is not an act of history; it's an act of memory, and in that sense it's corrupt."

Oh man, I totally understand that sentence. 

Here's a personal example of corrupted memory:  There's an ongoing debate between my sister and I, and Mom about an event in our teen years.  During one summer, my sister went to this church camp thing when she was in junior high; I was in high school and wouldn't have gone to a camp, church or otherwise, for any reason under the sun.  Mom insists--vehemently--that I was the one at the camp, no matter that my sister can recite chapter and verse, and sing the hymns.  Why my mother--who should know which one of her daughters would have actually attended such a camp--persists in thinking it was me, is beyond understanding.

Mom's memory is corrupt.  (And if you're reading this Mom?  I did not go to that blasted church camp!!!)

Can anyone truly remember details of their past?  I could come close, perhaps.  I have many journals to use as refreshers--though even what I wrote is subjective and based on my age, my mood, my circumstances.  Still, my memory/recall is functional and I can bring back conversations, incidents, journeys, emotions.  However, if the recollection isn't precisely exactly unerringly perfect, does that change the reality of the event?  Turn fact into fiction?

I think intent is key here.  If I intend to deceive, or purposefully make something up, that's fiction plain and simple.  But when I write about an episode in my life, pulling it from the memory banks to relate it as authentically as I can, my goal is to share a fragment of truth as I know it.  And frankly, my actual life stories are better than anything I could invent anyway.

So, is there a point to this post?  Maybe.  It's interesting, after all, to troll through our memories, recall past events, tell our tales.  And though we should strive to be as faithful to the facts as possible--unless we're writing fiction--we probably ought to stop every now and then to ponder how accurate those facts truly are. 

Just don't ask my mother...


  1. I've heard the term dairist, but memoirist is a new one on me.

    All of our tales, fiction or otherwise, are skewed through the prisms of perception and memory. That's just the way of it and anyone who'd tell you different is daft or trying to sell something. How a story is recounted one day is going to be a horse of different color from a year or three later. Then again, no matter what, it's all true...even and especially the lies ;).

    1. Ah. So you're siding with my mother then? ;D