Monday, February 22, 2010

On Truth and Love in Memoir: by Dani Shapiro

Last weekend I found myself having dinner with Ruth Reichl and her lovely husband Michael before an event at the Woodstock Writers Festival in upstate New York. Ruth delivered a talk on memoir that evening, and she said something remarkable, something that distilled for me the two most important things a memoirist must keep in mind: it all boils down to truth and love.

Truth and love. Truth, in the sense that of course when we write memoir, we are trying to hew closely--as closely as possible--to the truth of the story we're telling. Increasingly, the skepticism surrounding memoir concerns us. A student just asked me yesterday if it was all right, in a scene set in a Chinese restaurant, a memory of herself and her parents at age eleven, it was all right to make up the fortunes in the fortune cookies. I don't think this question would even have been asked ten years ago. Of course it's all right to make up the fortunes in the fortune cookies, as long as she's not pulling out a fortune of grave import, because that's part of what writing a memoir is. We don't remember dialogue--not exactly. We don't remember fortune cookies, or precise meals, or a slant of light. We reconstruct. We pull from the bin of memory -- which, believe me, is a very different bin from where fiction lives. A writer absolutely knows when she's making something up, and when she's attempting to excavate from memory.

So, truth. Simpler, in a sense, than love. By love, I think what we're talking about is loyalty, fidelity, betrayal. Privacy. We're writers, and we're writing about other people--people with private lives, people with their own stories, people who trusted us, or who once trusted us--and we are taking pieces of them and making them ours. That's simply the case. It is true, in the words of Janet Malcolm, that journalism is an act of betrayal. So what is to be done? How to be as careful as possible? What are the ethics of memoir?

Having written two memoirs now, I can speak to this in a different way than I could a number of years ago. Slow Motion is the story of my family. My father, mother, aunts, uncles were in that book. I wasn't yet a mother myself. My sociopathic criminal ex-boyfriend was in the book. (In fact, when the Random House attornies wanted to take out my reference to him as a "pathological liar", I was able to point to The New York Times, who had called him a pathological liar, right there in the paper of record.) My father was dead. My relatives, it seemed to me at the time, were fair game, and were relatively minor characters in the story. My mother, however, was another story. She was very much alive, and I didn't want to hurt her. I wanted to tell my story--a story which involved her deeply--but I wasn't interested in hurting her. Before I gave her the manuscript to read, I gave it to a friend--an older woman, a mother herself--and asked her to give it a "mother read". The friend underlined a few places where she thought I had been gratuitiously cruel. I cut them out. Then I gave the book to my mother.

I thought I knew what would sting her. I thought that some of the ways I portrayed myself--as a drinking, drugging, anorexic, depressed wreck of a girl--would bother her.
I was wrong.

There is a moment in Slow Motion during which my mother, from her hospital bed, her body shattered in eighty places, began suing people for perceived wrongdoing. She sued my uncle, my aunt, my half-sister, the insurance company, and my father's investment bank, Bear Stearns. When I showed my mother the draft of Slow Motion, she said: "I never sued Bear Stearns!"

I removed the offending reference to the investment bank, and learned an important lesson. We don't know what will hurt the people we love. We don't know what will wound them--what aspect of themselves they will see in something we've written and take offense. All I could do, in that case, was to be willing to show her the book before it was published, and to make changes, as long as I felt they were reasonable.

Years later--ten, to be precise--when I embarked on a second memoir, I had very different concerns in the love department. My mother was dead. My father was long-dead. I was concerned about one person, one very small person, and that was my little boy, who had not asked to be born of a mother who writes. In order to write Devotion, I needed to be able to write about my experience of being his mother, and about an illness he suffered as an infant. Will he turn to me, some day, and accuse me of invading his privacy? I hope and pray not. Right now, he sits at my readings, proud to be a part of his mom's book. All we can do is be careful -- we are people who love other people, and we are writers who explore our lives. We walk that line, swaying, stumbling, sometimes falling, righting ourselves. The awareness seems, to me, the most important thing.

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