The boundaries between memoirs and fiction are becoming more porous. Here’s how the novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon responded when an interviewer asked, “Is memoir writing not that much different from fiction writing?”
“It is and it isn’t. It has formal demands, demands of shapeliness in the way that fiction does. There are some things, which, if left out, would make an untruthful record. Memoir has a responsibility to the truth, or the truth as best you can tell it. That is to say, if you willfully suppressed something – well, there is no point writing a memoir if you don’t want to tell the truth as you see it. To deliberately fudge something that made you look better, or made someone else look better – that’s the kind of issue that comes up in memoir that does not come up in fiction.”
Mary Gordon in “Writing to Understand Yourself,” an interview with Charlotte Templin, in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies www.writersdigest.com. Gordon’s most recent memoir, Circling My Mother (Pantheon, $24), was published in August www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/.
Comment by Janice Harayda:
If only more memoirists shared Gordon’s view that there’s no point in “fudging.” You see much more distortion in memoirs today than a generation ago. Some memoirists say that they have to fudge to protect the privacy of friends or relatives, or that if they didn’t, they couldn’t tell their stories, because they lack too much essential information. Other writers contend that memoirs are inherently subjective. All of that may be true. But I’ve argued on this site that if memoirists set aside the truth – for example, by inventing scenes or using composite characters – they have a responsibility to say so in their books.
What do you think?
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.