The Ethics of Memoir Writing

In a publishing world that includes the likes of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, facts, speculation, and imagination can be so blended into one book, which causes more than a little confusion and controversy. Nowhere is that concern more necessary or weighty than in the memoir genre. One looks for memoir in the nonfiction section of bookstores and libraries, but as Thomas Larson points out The Memoir and the Memoirist, memoir is not nonfiction in the same sense that autobiography is. Dialogue has to be recreated from memory, and places and characters need dramatization in order to satisfy the reader. To borrow from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, memoir is “composed,” rather than an arbitrary collection of facts thrown together chronologically. This blend of dramatized nonfiction is messy work for both writer and reader. Which personas are trustworthy ones?

Writers lose readers if they do not go about establishing ethical appeal — perhaps a little self-deprecating humor, grappling with the complexities of a character the narrator may not like, admitting one’s faults – early on in a book or essay. That a writer must wrestle with both his former and current self self does not make the task any easier. And to search for one’s story is not the same as factual perfection; memoir relies on memory, a reality that requires at least a little grace as it relates to getting the little details right. Mary McCarthy makes this clear in her preface to Memories of a Catholic Girlhood: “There are cases where I am not sure myself whether I am making something up. I think I remember, but I am not positive.”

Larson lists out several potential lies from a memoirist: “leaving stuff out,” “not writing about the things one is truly ashamed of,” and “emphasizing a narrative arc of one’s life so that one’s life has a meaning and significance if may not have had.” To be clear, a lie of omission must be distinguished from the art of selection. Memoirists have to make choices about what goes in and what gets left out. A trustworthy memoirist makes choices based on episodes and narration that fit the story, rather than on what he or she wants or does not want the reader to know.

Memoir often doesn’t get fact-checked, and so a memoirist sometimes makes an honest mistake about a factual truth. Here’s where we get to the distinction between memoir and autobiography again: the greater truth of a memoir is the emotional experience of the persona. We might call this theme. This may give a memoirist permission to imagine the color of a character’s shirt or the smell of a hallway (with the experience of the reader in mind), but it does not give the memoirist permission to make up events or characters that conveniently advance the theme. According to Birckerts “This really happened is the baseline contention of the memoir.” To take a greater liberty of invention is to abuse the genre and lose one’s ethical appeal. If one really wants to do that, why not just call what is written fiction?

That emotional truth at the of center of memoir is not the same as saying, as some readers may suggest, that memoir is simply confessional, the vomiting of all one’s personal problems on the page with the expectation that readers will buy the book, care, and empathize. Memoir is not the same as a journal entry. A persona’s psychology is part of the story to be sure, but the development must be crafted carefully rather than exploited cheaply. Birckerts makes that same point: “I’ve even heard people venture that the writing memoirs is more a therapeutic than an artistically expressive occupation, and that the results are best put away in the desk drawer than shopped in the market place. I could not disagree more.” If a memoir makes the writer or the reader feel good, that is fine, but it is by no means the intention of writing a memoir.

Finally, one of the tricky techniques for an ethical memoirist is that of writing dialogue. In Frank McCourt’s popular Angela’s Ashes, the characters speak widely and freely, which caused at least this reader to suspect that he created and imagined far more dialogue than he remembered. I am probably more prudent in my writing of dialogue than McCourt is, but much of his is probably even true in spirit; that is to say that there are certain things we remember our parents saying repetitively in certain situations, and those memories probably helped McCourt write his dialogue. And remember: the result benefits the reader. Yes, a narrative is, to some degree, constructed. I don’t think that’s a big secret. McCarthy goes as far as making a disclaimer at the beginning of her book: “My memory is good, but obviously I cannot recall whole passages of dialogue that took place years ago…The conversations, as given, are mostly fictional. Quotation marks indicate that a conversation to this general affect took place, but I do not vouch for the exact words or the exact order of speeches.”

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