Thursday, July 24, 2008

64: {A Million Little...} On Memoir

I read A Million Little Pieces long before the swelling--back when it was simply a Discover book, and the style was innovative, and it was one of the few books I enjoyed from the list my former bookstore put together.

James Frey came into said bookstore, before appearing on Oprah lists, but still big, just after his second (vibrantly pink) book came out. The brother of one of the managers at the store was in the same rehab center Frey had survived; the manager, who was much beloved by many employees, including me, was saddened but realistic. She wanted to meet the man who came out the other said, had lived to tell the tale, had related the bleak statistics, had overcome. And Frey was kind, spoke to her at length, signed books, signed one specifically to the brother with contact information, telling the brother, in that signature style, to stop fucking up, and departed. My manager cried.

To me, this will always endear Frey to my heart, so when folks came out with their arms swinging, angry at "being lied to" and the publisher turning tail and accepting returns on a book without a disclaimer, I was already on his side, my beliefs on the situation set aside.

But in truth, this is something we discussed in my creative non-fiction classes at university. Perhaps nothing as drastic, though, from what I understand, the falsehoods were not actually harmful to others, only adapted truths, huge hyperbole. To me, a story needs to be listened to, just as a poem does. In workshop, sometimes the best explanation is the only explanation: we employed a particular image or technique because that is what the poem told the writer of said poem to do. It doesn't mean it's always the right thing to do, but who gets to judge this? (Not Oprah, I don't think.)

Of course, we could then go on to discuss other memoirs, or even other histories: is the textbook you read when you were in school accurate? History is told by the winners, some people say.

I can be stupidly honest. But I also can shift the truth to suit the narrative. In poetry, we have that kind of freedom. Some people believe it's all based on fact, based on our lives, but we adapt, to strengthen, to tell a completely different tale. I can also be stupidly trusting, but I do know that memoir is always adapted. We cannot truly recreate the dialog from a decade ago, recall exactly the first kiss, the canned-worm feeling in our stomach. We embellish. I don't mind if I picked up an enjoyable narrative from a section marked "Biography" (which is not what the darn book was anyway, and a shop like Borders doesn't even have a biography/autobio/memoir section) or from a section marked "Fiction/Literature" (heck, why would Cornwall and Grisham get to reside in a section bannered half "Literature" anyway?).

I once spent a class period discussing this in the high school creative writing class I taught. Some were adamant on proper labels, others shrugged and said that wasn't the issue but that the message, the theme was more important.

This, years later, is still a topic of curious conversation. Laura and I sat in the back of MDB's car as we drove along the north shore, pondering the validity of such a response by a publisher or a woman whose name is a kind of brand, something to wield.

1 comment:

EWH said...

I (heart) James Frey. I too read his books before he was a "liar". And I loved them. They spoke to me. He has passion, despite his embellishments. And isn't that what matters?