Truth or Consequences

Tienanmen Square

By Carolyn Barbre

Last week I asked the questions, “Is writing a memoir a long form of poetry? Or is poetry a cryptic way of disclosing your inner self?” I disclosed on someone else’s blog that I thought the answer was both. Judith Barrington who, wrote Writing the Memoir, the best book I have found on the subject to date, stated, “My own route to memoir was via poetry.” I rest my case.

Following are some observations from her book: For members of marginalized groups, speaking personally and truthfully about our lives plays a small part in erasing years of invisibility and interpretation by others. By demanding our “loyalty” in the form of silence, some of the people we are closest to have coerced us into collaborating with their lies.

Barrington clears up the confusion between memoir and fiction: After all, not everything in a memoir is true: who can remember the exact dialogue that took place at breakfast forty years ago? But, the author stands behind her story, saying this happened; this is true, requiring the writer to be “an unflinchingly reliable narrator.” With the central commitment not to fictionalize, you enter into a contract with the reader. Memoir is circumscribed by the facts, while fiction is circumscribed by what the reader will believe.

There are no secrets, most especially not in today’s world of tracking every keystroke consigned to the Internet via blogs or emails or even the most innocent “like” button. There really never have been secrets in the long run. But they have never exposed quite so easily or thoroughly before.

I just finished reading a memoir that left me with the nagging feeling that the author was cherry picking what she wrote about, hinting at but never sharing the whole truth. It was beautiful, poetic, but ultimately blah. Barrington warns, “Dishonest writing is often mediocre writing…with a faint odor of prevarication about it.”

The point is to self-analyze, to share one’s intellectual and emotional quest for answers. We all want to be the heroes in our own story. Barrington maintains that self-revelation without analysis or understanding is an embarrassment to both writer and reader.

Ready to be the hero of you own story?

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3 Comments

Filed under Memoir musings

3 responses to “Truth or Consequences

  1. Great piece. I especially liked this line from Barrington: ‘self-revelation without analysis or understanding is an embarrassment to both writer and reader’. The question that comes up for me is whether the analysis might not sometimes be unearthed by the reader through the action of well written scenes rather than through sturdy analysis by the writer herself?

    • Yes, of course. I believe that is what she means.
      By the way Cathy, I know you from She Writes and love your blog.
      Both reader and writer decide whether the story is true. Both will have a nagging fear that it is not total revelation when that is the case. But we are expert at lying to ourselves despite our attempts to convince the world at large that we are something other than what we are. What is to be remembered is there is no revelation too shocking to the reader.
      Think about it. Tell me what has anyone disclosed that is too embarrassing for writer and reader. Portnoy’s Complaint? The Happy Hooker? Both best sellers.

  2. Hi,
    I attended a writing conference last weekend and Sara Cortez spoke on writing a memoir. Her main point was–Be Honest. Other advice was–read other memoirs, whether you like the subject or not, you can learn from their good or bad writings.
    I think each speaker talked about being passionate. Don’t write about something of little interest to you, in hopes of pleasing a publisher…it won’t.
    Great weekend, and my first conference.
    Happy writing today!

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