On Telling the Truth
What does this mean, to tell the truth on the page? How do we even begin to go about it? It strikes me that there is something sacred about the act, the attempt. (In his wonderful book Reality Hunger, David Shields writes that the word memoir has its roots the ancient Greek mermeros, a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we think about but cannot grasp: mermer. “To vividly wonder.” “To be anxious.” “To exhaustingly ponder.”)
The writer, alone in a room. Alone with her thoughts, dreams, demons, fantasies, history. Alone with the material–invisible bricks and mortar–with which she will build, word by word, something. A house. A boat. A vessel to contain those words, give them shape and meaning. She will try to tell a certain kind of truth with them. But what is this truth? And what is our fidelity to it?
This question has been coming up a lot lately. Audiences always want to know whether, in my memoirs, I make anything up. How can I remember the weather? Or exactly what people say? Or what someone was wearing at a particular moment? Do I supply details that I don’t remember? Do I mine my life for the drama? For the shock value? The closest I can get to an answer is this. I don’t write to shock. Nor do I write to manipulate. I don’t write to exact revenge, to settle scores, out of rage. I don’t make things up. My motivation, in writing, is to connect. To say: this is me, my truth, my world. This is what I understand, this is my lens, this is how I see. These are the shifting sands of my memory. This is me, turned inside out, in all of my confusion and humanness and self-doubt. The closer I can hew to my interior life–whether in writing fiction or memoir, though of course the material and the process is quite different–the stronger that house, that boat, that vessel will be. The more likely that it will sail forth.
We all know there is no such thing as the truth, one truth. We are also aware, in writing memoir, that we are telling a story. We’re not setting down a historical account. We’re not writing autobiography. A few weeks ago, at a speaking engagement, an audience member asked me why I didn’t write about a certain member of my family in Devotion. The reason, I responded, was that she didn’t belong in the book. The book–the story–with its delicate, fragile, very specific arc, could not have made room for that family member. Nor did I feel that I was doing anything wrong, either in an ethical or a literary sense, by omitting her. I wasn’t writing autobiography. I was writing memoir–carving a story out of my life and my history. Joyce Carol Oates‘ new memoir about her widowhood omits the fact that she has remarried. I read a piece this week that took her to task for this. But why should she have included that information? The book isn’t about her new marriage. It’s a chronicle of her grief. It’s a story she wrote, alone in a room, vividly wondering. Exhaustingly pondering. Trying to tell the truth of that time, to build a vessel to contain that spark, that bright aliveness, that attempt to capture something specific and true, essential and human.